Friday, February 22, 2019

2019 WINNER: Roma (yawn)

Final Prediction:

1. ROMA (yawn). 85%
3. COLD WAR 5%

Frankly, I don't understand all the Oscar love for "Roma". I'm happy that Yalitza Aparicio got nominated (she was great) and the B&W cinematography certainly is beautiful. It's a nice movie to be sure....But I certainly preferred the devastating family drama of "Shoplifters" (Japan) and "Capernaum" (Lebanon), as well as "Cold War" (Poland). I felt "Roma" was the weakest of the four. I also preferred the shortlisted "The Guilty" and "Birds of Passage".....though I probably would have ranked "Roma" ahead of "Burning". 

I was never able to find the time to see "Never Look Away" (Germany), with its three hour running time and eleventh-hour release date, or "Ayka" (Kazakhstan).  

Monday, January 21, 2019


As usual, I've left it to the last minute to predict the Final Five.....

This year we have an interesting list in large part because there were so few surprises.....Yes, "Ayka" was a bit of a shock but the other eight films are all films that many people were predicting.

So this is an unusual year because I think that all nine films really do have a chance of making the Top Five.....I've seen seven of the nine....Germany's three-hour running time scared me away from its single DC screening, while Kazakhstan has been extremely difficult to see.

Here are my final predictions:

1. MEXICO- "Roma"
2. JAPAN- "Shoplifters"
3. LEBANON- "Capernaum"

      These three films have swept the precursors (scoring at both the Golden Globe and the BAFTAs), scored at film festivals (Lebanon and Japan winning the Top Two awards at Cannes 2019) and garnered critical acclaim in the United States, where it counts. "Roma", by far my least favorite in this group, has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and has mysteriously emerged as the favorite. The other are Oscar friendly genres....Japan's family drama and Lebanon's topical "children-in-peril" are likely to resonate with voters.

4. GERMANY- "Never Look Away"
5. DENMARK- "The Guilty"
6. POLAND- "Cold War"

So, I keep changing my mind about which of these three films will come in sixth......Most people think "Cold War" is the safest, but I'm thinking this may be this year's surprise snub (it didn't make the Golden Globes). Like the film's title "Cold War" runs cold. It's beautifully filmed (and will probably get a Cinematography nod) but the film itself

Denmark is my favorite of the seven films I've seen (Colombia, Denmark, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, Poland) and one of my favorites of the 50 films I saw from the long-list. It's a fast-paced, entertaining thriller. Oscar doesn't often go for "entertaining" thrillers in this category but "The Guilty" is so well-done and Denmark knows the Oscars so well.....So, I'm placing it in fifth.

As for Germany......I haven't seen "Never Look Away" and I don't particularly want to. Foreign critics haven't been impressed with the film, but it's important to note that American critics have been far kinder. My friends who have seen it loved it....Germany has a great record in this category....I would much rather see Colombia or Kazakhstan get this spot, but I have a feeling that Germany is in,.

7. COLOMBIA- "Birds of Passage"
9. SOUTH KOREA- "Burning"

There's a strong possibility that these three films were the "Elite Saves" (although I personally think Colombia made it through on its own), putting them at a natural disadvantage. Although I believe it's in the rules that you have to see all nine films to vote, I'm not sure how the rule is enforced....Kazakhstan's "Ayka" is so obscure, so little-seen and so dark and grim that I think it's likely out. But Kazakhstan should be proud of making it to the semi-final round for the third time.

I saw "Birds of Passage" and "Burning" with friends and was lucky to discuss the prospects of both films with them. Everybody readily agreed that "Birds of Passage", a Wayuu-language "Godfather" epic set amongst the indigenous people of Colombia, was extremely well-made. But none of us fell in love with the film, and Ciro Guerra has been nominated already for a more beloved long-shot ("Embrace of the Serpent") ...It would be a worthy nominee but with less buzz than the previous six, I think it will just miss it.

While we acknowledge the film's merits, none of us really liked "Burning", the film is way too long and critical opinion for this arthouse mystery has been divisive. That doesn't bode well for South Korea, which is hoping for its first-ever nomination. However, I will say that the more we discussed the film the more we noticed.....It's not out entirely...Just the least likely choice. 

Monday, December 17, 2018


Well, the Oscar shortlist is scheduled to come out today....I've managed to see 47 of the 87 nominees which I think it s a record for me pre-shortlist. Unfortunately, I haven't seen three of the key front-runners ("Roma", "Shoplifters" and "Capernaum") though I hope to see them all this week.

1. MEXICO- "Roma"
2. JAPAN- "Shoplifters"
3. DENMARK- "The Guilty"
4. LEBANON- "Capernaum" 
5. SLOVAKIA- "The Interpreter"
6. POLAND- "Cold War" (Elite Save)
7. SWEDEN- "Border" (Elite Save)
8. URUGUAY- "A Twelve-Year Night"
9. TUNISIA- "Beauty and the Dogs" (Elite Save)

10. TURKEY- "Wild Pear Tree"
11. COLOMBIA- "Birds of Passage"
12. GERMANY- "Never Look Away"
13. KOREA- "Burning" 
13. AUSTRALIA- "Jirga"
15. NORWAY- "What Will People Say?"
16. UKRAINE- "Donbass"
17. BELGIUM- "Girl"
18. KENYA- "Supa Modo"

19. FRANCE- "La douleur" (Memoirs of War)
20. ICELAND- "Woman at War"
21. UK- "I Am Not A Witch"
22. EGYPT- "Yomeddine"
23. ISRAEL- "The Cakemaker"
24. ITALY- "Dogman"
25. PARAGUAY- "The Heiresses"
26. NIGER- "The Wedding Ring"

27. NETHERLANDS- "The Resistance Banker"
28. IRAN- "No Date, No Signature"
29. HUNGARY- "Sunset"
30. ESTONIA- "Take It Or Leave It"
31. RUSSIA- "Sobibor"
32. ARGENTINA- "El angel"
33. KAZAKHSTAN- "Ayka"
34. BOSNIA- "Never Leave Me"
35. INDONESIA- "Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts"
36. AFGHANISTAN- "Rona, Azim's Mother"

Sunday, December 16, 2018

2019 Oscar Contenders: The Western Countries (Western Europe, Canada, Australia, NZ)

Here are the remaining 21 "Western" countries, consisting of Western Europe, plus Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The shortlist will be announced tomorrow so I'll keep this short!

21. GREECE- "Polyxeni"
20. NEW ZEALAND- "Yellow is Forbidden"
19. PORTUGAL- "Pilgrimage"
18. AUSTRIA- "The Waldheim Waltz"
17. SWITZERLAND- "Eldorado"

Documentaries face an uphill battle here especially in such a competitive year as this. I don't think that any of the three obscure documentaries in this group have a chance. I've seen "Waldheim Waltz" from AUSTRIA and I wasn't very impressed. Filmed by an Austrian Jewish activist, it follows the 1986 Austrian presidential election in which Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Secretary General, faced allegations that he had been involved with Nazi atrocities. It's certainly informative but it also feels outdated and shows some unusual bias (when they show Kurt Waldheim meeting world leaders as Secretary General, the director chooses to show him shaking hands with dictators like Saddam Hussein and Mobutu Sese Seko). An odd choice for Austria. SWITZERLAND has "Eldorado", a documentary about the European migrant crisis in which Oscar-nominated director Markus Imhoof contrasts his family's experience hosting an Italian WWII orphan with the refugees currently coming to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Reviews have been all over the map, mostly positive with some negative reviews. NEW ZEALAND has selected Mandarin Chinese-language fashion documentary "Yellow is Forbidden", which follows the work of Chinese designer Guo Pei. I've heard it's well-made but likely to be of interest only to those interested in the world of fashion.

Greece and Portugal always seem to be in the bottom tier. PORTUGAL, which holds the distinction of the most Oscar submissions without a nomination, has selected "Pilgrimage" a 16th century historical drama about Portuguese seafarers on a voyage around Asia. Production values appear strong but the film has no international awards, has gotten mostly middling reviews and depends on some rather old-fashioned Portuguese and music that isn't guaranteed to appeal domestically or overseas. Last and least is "Polyxeni" from GREECE which is basically a long drawn-out and occasionally confusing soap opera about a Greek woman from a wealthy family in Ottoman Turkey whose extended family tries to drive her mad and steal her money when her respectable parents die.

16. LUXEMBOURG- "Gutland"
15. CANADA- "Chien de garde" (Family First)
14. FINLAND- "Euthanizer"
13. SPAIN- "Campeones" (Champions)

I've seen three of these four, but not yet the film from CANADA. "Family First" is a family drama about a young man who wants to distance himself from the criminal activities of his family. Reviews have been mixed so this was an unusual choice for Canada. It seems perhaps they wanted to select a film by a young, female director?

I personally loved "Euthanizer", a dark, dark thriller from FINLAND....but most people hate it and it has no choice of advancing. It's a revenge movie as well as a (rather sick) love story about a 50-something man who makes his living euthanizing animals. He believes (quite rightly) that the animals are suffering largely because of the actions of their owners. Again, it's a wild ride and American audiences won't be able to handle it. SPAIN made the odd choice of selecting comedy "Campeones" (Champions). It's a comedy about a basketball coach who is sentenced to community service working with metally disabled adults. It's certainly entertaining, but it's also formulaic and predictable and reminded of an American 80s movie. I enjoyed it, but it's a non-starter for an Oscar. Last we have quirky thriller "Gutland" from LUXEMBOURG, about a German thief who hides out in a very strange town in Luxembourg. I usually like films like this but I found it a bit confusing and occasionally slow going. On reflection, the film maybe makes sense.

12. ICELAND- "Woman at War"
11. NETHERLANDS- "The Resistance Banker"
10. ITALY- "Dogman"
9. TURKEY- "Wild Pear Tree"
To be completed later.....
8. UNITED KINGDOM- "I Am Not A Witch"
7. FRANCE- "La douleur" (Memoir of War)
6. BELGIUM- "Girl"
5. AUSTRALIA- "Jirga"

A lot of people are predicting Golden Globe nominee "Girl" and BAFTA winner "I Am Not A Witch". They're both very possible but I'd be a little surprised to see them on the shortlist. I've seen the two films, both of which focus on issues of identity for unusual young girls that don't necessarily conform to societal norms. BELGIUM's "Girl" is about a transgender 16 year old who is both obsessed with her vocation as a ballerina, and with speeding up the hormone treatments that will help her complete her biological transition. I was really surprised by the Golden Globe nomination because, although well-made, this is really a small indie with an amazing lead performance. Lara, the lead character, may be suffering through stress but she has a supportive family, school and (for the most part) friends. There's very little conflict other than that between Lara and her own body. That and a ludicrous ending made a potentially great film merely good. "I Am Not A Witch" is representing the UNITED KINGDOM but also unofficially representing ZAMBIA, where the film was made. It's about a little orphan (?) girl who appears in a village out of nowhere and is accused of being a witch. She is sent to a community for women accused of witchcraft and adopted by a man who seeks to exploit her allegedly magical powers. It's refreshing and exotic and original. But it's all a little too whimsical and (like "Girl") also could have punched up the ending (which I liked). Both of these films are debut films by promising new directors. I just don't necessarily think they'll score here.

I haven't seen the World War II drama "La douleur" or Taliban drama "Jirga" but I think AUSTRALIA has the edge between the two. Filmed in Afghanistan in extremely difficult conditions, "Jirga" is a moral dilemma drama about an Australian soldier who returns to Afghanistan to make amends with a family whose civilian son he killed while serving there. It's a baity topic and the film has just been bought by an American distributor. While I don't think it will make the Top Nine, this is sure to do very well. Last, we have "La douleur" (Memoirs of War) which was the surprise pick from FRANCE over "Custody". Following a female resistance fighter during WWII and based on an acclaimed novel. It's total Oscar bait. It got a limited US release, looks great and features a love triangle that you know can have no happy ending. Unfortunately, it's also gotten rather poisonous reviews. There are those who like it, but not enough. So, France is likely out.

4. NORWAY- "What Will People Say?"
3. GERMANY- "Never Look Away"
2. SWEDEN- "Border"

In this category we have two brilliant and deserving Nordic films....that are not necessarily Oscar's cup of tea.....and we have one Oscar bait film that nobody seems to really like but may end up being a very lazy choice by the large committee. Let's look at the three:

The Film: "Never Look Away" A German artist in West Germany is haunted by memories of his life in East Germany.
Pros: It's well-made (strong acting and production values) and total Oscar bait with an Oscar-winning director who has already won this award (for "Lives of Others"). Oscar loves Germany and has shortlisted them 11 times in the past 16 years, even when they send a lackluster film ("Pina", "Labyrinth of Lies"). The film managed a Golden Globe nomination (over "Cold War" and "The Guilty")
Cons: Nobody seems to love it and it won't be considered for a save....It's over three hours long and probably too long.
Bottom Line: I had counted them out but that Globe nomination and German flag make them a serious threat.

The Film: "What Will People Say" The Norwegian-born daughter of Pakistani immigrants is banished by her parents to provincial Pakistan because they don't approve of her teenage behaviour.
Pros: It's a really great film! I can't think of a single film in the competition that has a more compelling lead character. The film was mostly filmed in India (standing in for Pakistan) in Urdu, so it's a lot more exotic than the usual film from Norway. The parents are engaging yet realistic villains, and the film ends strong.
Cons: Oscar often ignores stories of women and girls. The film has virtually no buzz.
Bottom Line: Highly unlikely.

The Film: "Border" A Swedish customs agent with "beastly" facial features can smell fear. She meets a Finnish man with similar features and talents, leading to a strange and possibly supernatural romance.
Pros: Possibly the most creative and original film in the competition. The film take the audience in directions that you truly didn't expect. The make-up effects are rumored to be in the running for an Oscar.
Cons: This is a wonderful but very weird movie but it's difficult to say anymore without spoilers. I'm not sure either committee will go for the fantasy genre.
Bottom Line: On the bubble! I'm crossing my fingers for Sweden!


1. DENMARK- "The Guilty" "The Guilty" is a rather brilliant thriller from DENMARK about a police investigator who is working on dispatcher/operator duty after shooting a suspect in self-defense. At the end of his shift, he receives a call from a woman being kidnapped and he must unravel the mystery and find the woman without leaving the operator room. It's claustrophobic and well-written and thrilling and and I think this will appeal strongly to the large committee. It's only handicap is that some Oscar voters prefer films with large-scale production values. But I think "The Guilty" should make it's way to the shortlist fairly easily.

Now the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 23

Number of countries participating this year:  21

Number of debuts: Zero.

Who's out?:  English-speaking Ireland and Malta.

Number I predicted correctly- Only 5- Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg and the UK. Austria was a bit of a shock.

Already Seen: 12, plus I'll see Italy next week.....So far: Austria (C-), Belgium (B), Denmark (A), Finland (A), Greece (D), Iceland (B+), Luxembourg (B-), Netherlands (B), Norway (A), Spain (B), Sweden (A), and the UK (B+)

Number of Female Directors:  6- Ruth Beckermann (Austria), Pietra Brettkelly (New Zealand), Sophie Dupuis (Canada, Iram Haq (Norway), Dora Masklavanou (Greece) and Rungano Nyoni (United Kingdom). 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 27-year old Lukas Dhont (Belgium) is the youngest director worldwide. 77-year old Markus Imhoof (Switzerland) is the third-oldest, and the most "senior" of the Western directors.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  2 mostly in French (Canada, France) and German (Germany, Switzerland), plus one each in Chinese (New Zealand), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Icelandic, Italian, Pashto (Australia), Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and Urdu (Norway). Roughly 50-50: Austria (German/French), Belgium (Dutch/French), Greece (Greek/Turkish), Luxembourg (German/Letzeburgesch), and Portugal (Portuguese/Chinese????). 

Number of Documentaries: 3Austria, New Zealand and Switzerland

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: It's a strong group....about ten.

Highest profile film:  Hard to say....In terms of buzz, I'm surprised to say it's "Girl". 

Oscar HistoryFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Germany) won an Oscar for "The Lives of Others". Markus Imhoof (Switzerland) was nominated way back in 1982 for "The Boat is Full" and also represented Switzerland in 1991 ("Der berg") and 2013 ("More than Honey"). Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey) is representing his country for the fifth time since 2003, and was short-listed once for "Three Monkeys". 

Also in the race before: João Botelho (Portugal, "Three Palm Trees" + "Hard Times"), Benedikt Erlingsson (Iceland; "Of Horses and Men"), Matteo Garrone (Italy; "Gomorrah") and Iram Haq (Norway; "I Am Yours"). 

Most Notable Omissions:  The Western countries always have plenty to choose from, forcing at least four early front-runners to bow out before the race even got started, including two new films from Oscar winners- Denys Arcand's "The Fall of the American Empire" (Canada) and Asghar Farhadi's "Everybody Knows" (Spain) plus critically acclaimed favorites "Custody" from France and "Happy As Lazarro" from Italy. They ended up casualties of the "one film per country" rule. Also missing: Mademoiselle Paradis" (Austria), "Insyriated" (Belgium), "The Unknown Soldier" (Finland), "Transit" (Germany), "U-July 22" (Norway) and "Becoming Astrid" (Sweden). 

Familiar Faces: Plenty of people are "familiar" in their own countries, but American audiences are probably going to recognize Vicky Krieps ("Phantom Thread") who co-stars in "Gutland", and Adil Hussain ("Life of Pi") who plays the evil father in "What Will People Say". 

Last year's race: I saw 17 of last year's 22 "Western" submissions. My favorite was Golden Globe winner "In the Fade" from Germany which was shortlisted but failed to be nominated for an Oscar. Denmark's "You Disappear" was a close second. I was surprised both of them got such bad press. The weakest were Ireland and New Zealand (which clearly don't have much to choose from) and the dreary "Summer 1993". from Catalonia/Spain. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

2019 Oscar Contenders: Eastern Europe and the former USSR (23 Countries)

Here are the 23 submissions from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. 

23. KYRGYZSTAN- "Night Accident" Kyrgyzstan announced road movie "Night Accident" as their Oscar submission on September 27th. The film got very good reviews but didn't appear on the final list (though it was on the Golden Globes submission list). My guess is that it didn't arrive in Los Angeles in time, but there's been no confirmation either way. 

22. LITHUANIA- "Wonderful Losers"
21. LATVIA- "To Be Continued"
20. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Winter Flies"
19. MONTENEGRO- "Iskra"
18. GEORGIA- "Namme"

For the second year in a row, LITHUANIA is in my bottom two. Their dull 75-minute documentary "Wonderful Losers" is about professional cycling. It focuses on the members of professional cycling teams whose job (apparently) is to support the team captains but it also focuses on the medical teams that follow the racers. There was actually no explanation of how these cycling races are organized and the stories were of very little interest. LATVIA also selected an unheralded documentary, choosing "To Be Continued", following a number of rural children through their first year of school. Even if it's very well-done it won't make an impact here. Both were probably chosen thanks to a new rule that all documentaries submitted for the Foreign Language category will automatically be entered in the Best Documentary competition. 

MONTENEGRO has the most obscure film on the list, namely "micro-budget" political thriller Iskra", the feature debut of 28-year old Gojko Berkuljan. The few reviews online say this is a very engaging film, focused on a series of unsolved murders and disappearances. But with no awards, no buzz, no festival play and no budget, it will have to content itself with the extra publicity it will get from the Oscar race. GEORGIA also chose an obscure film- "Namme"- over some more high-profile entries ("Khibula", "Dede" and a local version of "Hamlet"). "Namme" is about an old man who is the caretaker of a holy spring with healing waters, and a (possibly) magical fish.  His three sons have left home leaving his reluctant youngest daughter to carry on the tradition. "Namme" has a sweet story and showcases Georgia's natural beauty....but it's slow-moving and slightly dull. 

The CZECH REPUBLIC should be embarrassed to be in the bottom tier alongside these four small republics. "Winter Flies" was one of the worst of the 46 submissions I've seen so far. If you want to see a road movie with two unlikable 13-year olds jerking off together in a car, go see "Winter Flies".  

17. KOSOVO- "The Marriage"
16. BELARUS- "Crystal Swan"
15. ARMENIA- "Spitak"
14. ROMANIA- "I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians"
13. MACEDONIA- "Secret Ingredient"

After a 22-year absence, BELARUS is back in the Oscar race with "Crystal Swan". I feel terrible ranking it so low because I really loved the film. It's definitely one of my favorites and one of the reasons I try to see all the films- not just the apparent front-runners. Set in the 1990s, "Crystal Swan" is about, Velya, a 20-something Belarusian slacker who dreams of being a DJ and dreads ending up like her mother, a responsible civil servant. Velya is trying to get a visa to leave her conservative country and work illegally in America. When she learns that the US Embassy will call the fake phone number she put on her visa application "sometime this week" to verify her employment as a factory manager, she travels to rural Belarus to find the family that has the number and convince them to let her sit by the phone. "Crystal Swan" is a low-budget feature debut but it's charming, funny and original, while also treading into some very dark places. I loved it. Much the same can be said for the crowd-pleasing marijuana comedy "Secret Ingredient" from MACEDONIA. Vele's conservative father is dying of cancer and in constant pain, and Vele cannot afford the medicine needed to keep him. But instead of a dark Balkan drama, this is a very dark Balkan comedy as Vele discovers a cache of drugs and uses the potent marijuana to make Dad feel better. He tries to keep this a secret to avoid trouble with the police and with the drug dealers who lost their stash, but Dad can't keep a secret and tells the whole neighborhood that his son is a miracle healer. It's also a low-budget effort but it's very entertaining and very well-done. Bravo to both. 

Also from the former Yugoslavia, we have "The Marriage" (available on Amazon). Who would have thought that the only gay-themed film from Europe this year would be from the tiny, conservative breakaway republic of KOSOVO. This is another one of those films that I really enjoyed but will simply be forgotten here. The story follows a seemingly happily engaged Kosovar couple whose relationship is strained by the arrival of the groom's best friend who emigrated to France many years before. The two men were in love but could not make things work in conservative Kosovo. Reviews have been mixed-to-positive but I really liked it. 

More memorable and less enjoyable is ROMANIA's intellectual drama "I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians", a didactic, talky drama exploring Romanian history. This may be the "smartest" movie in competition, as the modern-day characters have intellectual debates about the meaning of history, the actions of Romania's WWII leadership and the ability of the public to process historical revisionism. It's a good film with a great ending...but it's not very accessible and definitely requires some knowledge of Romanian history. Last but not least, ARMENIA has chosen earthquake drama "Spitak", a Russian co-production . Strangely enough, Armenia was disqualified for another Russian co-production about the same earthquake two years ago. "Spitak" is an Armenian man in Moscow who rushes home to find his family after hearing about the disastrous 1988 earthquake that killed roughly 40,000 people. Destined to be an also-ran. 

12. SERBIA- "Offenders"
11. BULGARIA- "Omnipresent"
10. CROATIA- "The Eight Commissioner"
9. SLOVENIA- "Ivan"

Balkan neighbors Bulgaria and Serbia have chosen very different films about the power of surveillance and voyeurism. Dark comedy "Omnipresent" (BULGARIA) is slightly more likely than dark thriller "Offenders" (SERBIA), though neither is likely to make the finals. "Offenders", one of is about a group of graduate students who set up a series of video cameras in a poor neighborhood to prove their professor's theory of anarchy. Bulgaria is a lighter (but still sometimes creepy) film about a man who becomes obsessed with watching the security cameras he has set up in his home and office. The man had set up one camera in his father's apartment to catch a thief but the cameras proceed to reveal family secrets and betrayals that he uses to his own advantage. 

CROATIA's comedy "The Eighth Commissioner" revolves around a fast-rising bureaucrat who is forcibly relocated from the capital to a remote island after an embarrassing political scandal. His new "district" is filled with a few dozen elderly citizens (plus a Bosnian fugitive, a Ukrainian prostitute and a slew of goats) who have no intention of cooperating. They have already driven the first "seven commissioners" away. This is a flawed but definitely charming film. The ribald humor and the overlong running time will make sure this film is likely to rank in the 30s or 40s.  Finally we have SLOVENIA and "Ivan", which is a really hard one to rank. It's a well-made film with an extremely unsympathetic lead character, namely a young woman who has just given birth to the son of her wealthy, married boyfriend. This is a good, twisty drama with a lot of meaty moral dilemmas but isn't likely to stand out enough to make the Top Six or be one of the three that are saved. 

8. RUSSIA- "Sobibor"
7. ESTONIA- "Take It Or Leave It"
6. BOSNIA- "Never Leave Me"

I'll keep my remarks on these three brief. 

I've only seen "Take It Or Leave It" (ESTONIA), a well-made family drama about a 20-something Estonian laborer who receives a phone call from his ex-girlfriend notifying him that he has become a father and that she is giving the child up for adoption. The man reluctantly decides to raise the child by himself and what results in a very realistic (this is not "Mr. Mom" or "Three Men and a Baby") look at the struggles of single fatherhood. Probably too small to compete here but a strong effort. It will compare favorably with the similarly themed "Ivan" from Slovania. 

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA selected refugee drama "Never Leave Me", about Syrian refugees trying to survive in Turkey. Starring real-life child refugees, it's guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings. Reviews have been very positive, but note a tendency for the plot to get off-track. The film will be hurt by comparisons to Lebanon's more prominent "Capernaum" from Lebanon. RUSSIA has selected a more traditional war drama-"Sobibor"- revolving around the real-life uprising of prisoners being held in a Nazi extermination camp. The film itself is said to be an extremely realistic look at WWII history, but lacking in character development

5. HUNGARY- "Sunset"
3. UKRAINE- "Donbass"

Let's take a look at these three dark horses:

BLUF: A young woman's life in turn of the century Hungary.
PROS: The film looks beautiful. Director Nemes won the Oscar for "Son of Saul"
CONS: That's about it for Pros....Although reviews haven't been bad, a lot of people are lukewarm on the film. It has the lowest score in Europe on Rotten Tomatoes (52% from critics and 55% from audiences)
BOTTOM LINE: While hoping to emulate "The Notebook", another Hungarian film with mixed reviews that somehow made the shortlist, "Sunset" is probably out of luck.

BLUF: A grim drama about an unemployed, Central Asian woman living in Moscow. She has just had a baby and is desperate to make ends meet.
PROS: Won Best Actress in Cannes.
CONS: Unrelentingly grim and depressing. Most reviews single out the acting more than the film itself.
BOTTOM LINE: Kazakhstan pushed hard for this film to get into the Oscar race as it was originally going to be disqualified for not meeting nationality requirements (director Sergey Dvortsevoy was born and raised in Kazakhstan and has represented them once before....but is now based in Russia and recently gave up his Kazakh citizenship). But it can't make the Top Six and there's too much competition for a save.

BLUF: A series of vignettes focused on war-torn, eastern Ukraine
PROS: It's an intellectual, arthouse choice focusing on the issue of fake news and propaganda (a hot topic in the U.S.), and it's not required to know about Ukrainian politics......
CONS: ....but it helps. The "coldness" and lack of regular characters will turn off some voters and this definitely won't fly with the large committee.
BOTTOM LINE: I predict that "Donbass" is seriously considered by the elite committee for a "save"....and ultimately loses out.

2. POLAND- "Cold War"
1. SLOVAKIA- "The Interpreter"

As of December 14th, I have both of these films in my Top Nine predictions. "Cold War", from POLAND, has been a favorite all-season and has gotten rapturous reviews for its decidedly unromantic story of star-crossed lovers who meet in post-WWII Communist Poland and who manage to meet again in Yugoslavia, France and finally Poland. Of course it's well-done (I thought it was much better than Oscar-winning "Ida", which I found forgettable) and the Cinematography is likely to be nominated for an Oscar. But the film's characters aren't likable and the film, like the title, is "cold". It failed to get a Golden Globe nomination and is probably less safe than people think. "The Interpreter" from neighboring SLOVAKIA, could be the one that surprises everyone. This is the story of two old men on a road trip through Austria and Slovakia to research long-buried secrets from WWII. 80-year Ali, a Slovakian Jew and German-language interpreter, finds himself paired with 70-year free spirit George, an Austrian whose father was the Gestapo officer who had Ali's parents killed. It's funny, it's sad and it tells a Holocaust story in a completely different way. However, the ending (which I liked) has apparently turned a lot of people off. This film is going to be a strong contender to win over the traditionally older, male Large Committee....unless the influx of new voters this year really changes the demographics. 

Now the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past
: 27

Number of countries participating this year:  23 (including Kyrgyzstan) 

Number of debuts: Zero.

Who's out?:  Albania, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Tajikistan. 

Number I predicted correctly- I did pretty well, predicting 9 correctly (Bosnia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia), though most of these were pretty easy. 

Already Seen: I've seen 13 out of 23 so far and they are a likable bunch- Belarus (A-), Bulgaria (B+), Croatia (B+), Czech Republic (D), Estonia (A-), Georgia (C+), Kosovo (B+), Lithuania (D+), Macedonia (B+), Poland (B+), Romania (B), Slovakia (A) and Slovenia (B+). 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Serbia's "Offenders". 

Number of Female Directors:  4- Aida Begić (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Liina Triškina (Estonia), Blerta Zeqiri (Kosovo) and Darya Zhuk (Belarus)

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 28-year old Montenegrin director Gojko Berkuljan is the second-youngest filmmaker in the 87-film competition. 84-year old Ivars Seleckis of Latvia is by far the oldest. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  It's a big mix this year as films from Bosnia, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine all straddle real or imagined borders, and have dialogue in more than one language. But if we do majority languages, we have 4 in Russian (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine), 3 in Serbo-Croatian (Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia) plus one each in Albanian (Kosovo), Arabic (Bosnia), Armenian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, German (Slovakia), Hungarian, Italian (Lithuanian), Latvian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian and Slovene. 

Number of Documentaries: 2- Latvia and Lithuania

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Hmmm.....3 or 4 at most. 

Highest profile film:  Of course "Cold War" from Poland. 

Oscar History: We have two Oscar winners on the list- Poland's Paweł Pawlikowski's "Ida" won in 2015, and Hungary's László Nemes' "Son of Saul" won in 2016. 

Not sure if this is a record or not, but Slovakia's Martin Šulík is in the race for a seventh time....and he's only 56 years old...... On their third try: Aida Begić of Bosnia ("Snow", "Children of Sarajevo") and Janez Burger of Slovenia ("The Ruins" and "Silent Sonata"). On their second try- Sergey Dvortsevoy of Kazakhstan ("Tulpan"), Radu Jude of Romania ("Aferim") and Arūnas Matelis of Lithuania ("Before Flying Back to Earth"). 

Most Notable Omissions:   A lot of countries had an easy choice, but not Poland. Controversial priest drama "The Clergy"  (Poland) probably gave "Cold War" a last-minute run for its money. And astronaut drama "Salyut-7" never got much buzz but probably would have done extremely well.  Others eliminated early: "Directions" (Bulgaria),  "Dede" (Georgia), "A Gentle Creature" (Lithuania), "The Last Day Before June" (Moldova), Silver Bear winner "Mug" (Poland), "Dovlatov" (Russia), and "Volcano" (Ukraine). 

Familiar Faces: French actor Christopher Lambert stars in "Sobibor" (Russia). German actor Peter Simonischek ("Toni Erdmann") and Czech actor/director Jirí Menzel star in "The Interpreter" (Slovakia). 

Last year's race: I saw 16 of 22 films last year. I wasn't a huge fan of either of the two Oscar nominees ("Of Body and Soul" and "Loveless"). I definitely thought the best film was "Glory" from Bulgaria. I was also a big fan of the characters in "Ice Mother" (Czech Republic) and the creativity and originality of "November" (Estonia). 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

2019 Oscar Contenders: Asia and the Middle East

Here are the 22 films from Asia and the Middle East.

With the exception of some of the Middle Eastern countries, the Asian countries have mostly done poorly in recent years. Having seen 12 of the 22 submissions from the group this year, I can see why….Though I love Asian cinema, most of the submitted films have been disappointing. 


22. VIETNAM- "The Tailor"
21. PALESTINE- “Ghost Hunting”
20. HONG KONG- “Operation Red Sea”
19. TAIWAN- “The Great Buddha +”
18. SINGAPORE- “Buffalo Boys”

                VIETNAM's frothy time-travel comedy “The Tailor” is by no means the worst movie on the list; it’s a perfectly entertaining film filled with some really fun pop musical numbers. But Oscar voters will not be impressed by this mash-up of “Back to the Future” and “The Devil Wears Prada” (with one scene seemingly lifted directly from the Meryl Streep film). “The Tailor” is pure popular entertainment. The same goes for “Operation Red Sea” (HONG KONG), an overlong hyper-nationalistic action movie about the Chinese Navy trying to save Chinese hostages in an imaginary Middle Eastern country (but based on Yemen). The VFX and action scenes are impressive but the characters are interchangeable, the plot is basically a constant series of attacks and explosions, and the film literally ends with a warning by the Chinese military to the USA. It was a weak year, but this still an odd choice for Hong Kong.
                Taiwan and Palestine have both gone with the polar opposite of popular entertainment. Experimental documentary “Ghost Hunting” (PALESTINE) is an attempt by director Raed Andoni to recreate the experiences of Palestinian prisoners who were arrested and tortured by the Israeli military. More like a group therapy session than a movie, the directors uses former prisoners to act out the roles. I hope the exercise was cathartic to all those involved, but the film is a slog to get through and I was bothered that there was never any mention of why they were imprisoned. Were they political prisoners? Were they involved in violent attacks against Israeli civilians? Seems like a glaring error for a documentary. Turning to TAIWAN, I had high hopes for supposed B&W comedy “The Great Buddha” ….but I really hated this film about two night watchmen who uncover a murder mystery by watching surveillance videos. Most of the film is mind-numbingly dull....kind of like watching surveillance videos....with annoying narration by the director, “Our Town” style.
               I've seen the four previous films but I haven’t managed to see SINGAPORE's “Buffalo Boys”, one of two Indonesian-language revenge westerns competing this year (see INDONESIA). I’m told it’s an entertaining but fairly vapid action movie set in 19th century Java…very much a pretty “genre” pic and unlikely to impress the Oscar committee. I hope to see it when it plays VOD in January. 


17. NEPAL- “Panchayat”
16. BANGLADESH- “No Bed of Roses”
15. INDIA- “Village Rock Stars”
14. IRAQ- “The Journey”
13. CHINA- “Hidden Man”

INDIA's Assamese-language “Village Rockstars” is a beautifully filmed coming-of-age story about village children that showcases the region’s natural beauty. BANGLADESH's “No Bed of Roses” stars acclaimed Bollywood/Hollywood actor Irffan Khan as a writer whose loving relationship with his daughter is destroyed when he leaves her mother for her classmate. Unfortunately, both films are also painfully slow and I didn't enjoy watching either one. As one critics says about “Rockstars”, “One feels moved more by the natural characters — trees, rivers and fields — than the flesh and blood ones”. Though both films are under 90 minutes, I looked at my watch constantly. "Rockstars" cinematic value is purely cultural. It’s difficult to see “Panchayat” from neighboring NEPAL doing much better. I haven’t been able to see it, but this drama about a young girl coming of age in the turbulent 1970s has no buzz or international visibility. 
               As for CHINA, they’ve made a very poor choice. “Hidden Man”, a light action drama set in the 1930s, was foolishly chosen over auteur Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow”, China’s best chance for an Oscar nomination in years. A mainstream spy movie, reviews for “Hidden Man” have been tepid with most saying that the film is entertaining but muddled and flawed. It couldn’t even manage a Best Picture nomination at the Golden Horse Awards. I had high hopes for suicide bomber drama “The Journey” from IRAQ, which follows a number of characters in a train station minutes before a female bomber blows herself up. It’s hard to root against a film made under such difficult conditions (also see Yemen below) but “The Journey” suffers from a weak screenplay that fails to develop interesting characters or to make use of its dramatic premise. It’s not a bad film, but it’s not the Oscar contender I hoped for. 

12. THAILAND- “Malila, The Farewell Flower”
11. PHILIPPINES- “Signal Rock”
10. YEMEN- “10 Days Before the Wedding”
9. PAKISTAN- “Cake”

Though we are halfway up the list, none of these Asian films have any chance at a nomination...but they will represent their countries well. The Philippines and Thailand have been submitting for decades (the Pinoys since 1956 and the Thai since 1984) without luck and these two dramas are very low-key. LGBT drama "Malila: The Farewell Flower" from THAILAND combines Buddhist meditation, gay sex, grossly realistic dead bodies, and the beautiful Thai countryside in a very slow drama where the story is secondary to the symbolism. "Signal Rock", from the PHILIPPINES, is about a remote community where people have to climb a tall rock to get cell-phone reception. Reviews have been fine, but it's not much different from the other Filipino "poverty porn" indie features the country sends year after year. 

PAKISTAN's family drama "Cake" is said to be one of the best films to come out of the country in years and, along with feminist drama "Motorcycle Girl", the hallmark of a new breed of quality drama, instead of the usual shoot-em-up action movies and Bollywood-style musicals. I've heard great things from friends in Pakistan but I fear the Academy will merely see this as a well-done soap opera. Last but not least is war-torn YEMEN, the biggest surprise on the Oscar longlist. Made amidst the world's deadliest civil war, it still managed to pack makeshift cinemas (the have no functioning movie theatres so they used wedding halls) for months in the city of Aden. If they gave Oscars for backstories, this drama about a young couple trying to keep their wedding on track despite the bombings and the civil war would win hands-down. It has the highest IMDB rating of all 87 films (though that's probably inflated) and represents the work of a brave new filmmaker.


8. CAMBODIA- “Graves Without A Name”
7. INDONESIA- “Marlina the Murderer, in Four Acts”
6. AFGHANISTAN- “Rona, Azim’s Mother”

These three films will likely find some fans. I personally loved "Marlina the Murderer", a darkly comic feminist revenge thriller from INDONESIA. Imagine "Kill Bill" starring a mild-mannered widow and put her on an island and you've got an idea of what Marlina is like. It's very entertaining but not everybody likes it. As for CAMBODIA, they're trying to repeat Rithy Panh's surprise nomination for "The Missing Picture" with his latest documentary "Graves Without A Name". Both films focus on similar themes, detailing the very personal stories of the director and his family as they pursue the impossible task of finding the graves of relatives killed in the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge genocide. I've never understood how the didactic "Missing Picture" scored a nomination but the reception for "Graves" (which has Asia's lowest IMDB rating- a 6.0) and its droning philosophical narration has been quieter and lightning is unlikely to strike twice. Lastly, we have AFGHANISTAN and "Rona, Azim's Mother". For years now, the Afghans have been sending great movies in the style of Iran's best arthouse cinema. "Rona"premiered in Busan and has gotten warm reviews for its story of an Afghan refugee in Iran and his desperate efforts to take care of his aging mother. Afghanistan will once again do well in the overall rankings but fail to be nominated. 


5. IRAN- “No Date, No Signature”
4. ISRAEL- “The Cakemaker”
3. KOREA- “Burning”

I've managed to see all three of these dark horses. Let's look at the pros and cons:

The story: "A Separation" as if it was a medical drama and mystery. A coroner gets into a minor traffic accident with a poor family. The next day the little boy appears at the morgue, dead of uncertain causes. 
Pros: Reviews have been surprisingly strong. The style is very much in the mold of "A Separation" as the story gets revealed bit-by-bit and, the moral dilemmas pile up and, as in life, you're never quite sure when you're getting the full story. 
Cons: It's quite a small film and it may have trouble being remembered. The lead character doesn't have quite the impact of the couple in "A Separation". 

The story: A gay German baker falls in love with an Israeli businessman who visits Berlin frequently. When he is killed in a tragic accident, the baker goes to Israel and surreptitiously befriends the man's widow.
Pros: Oscar loves Israel. The film is one of the most original in the competition.
Cons: The film goes in some very weird places. The lead character isn't necessarily likable. LGBT stories don't always score here.

 South Korea
The story: An introverted young man from a poor family falls for an impetuous young woman who says they went to school together. She begins dating a rich "Great Gatsby" type and then disappears. He tries to unravel the mystery.
Pros: The film is a critical darling and choosing the film will definitely appeal to the Elite Committee. The more you think about the story, the more interesting the mystery becomes.
Cons: The film is about 30 minutes too long and could do with some judicious editing. Oscar hates South Korea and has never nominated them even when they submit great films (better than this). It's a divisive film and not everyone likes it.

Bottom Line: I think that Iran and Israel are probably out.....South Korea will be depending on a "save" from the small committee....and that's going to be tough and heavily dependent on which Six the large committee chooses. An uphill battle for all three.....

2. LEBANON- “Capernaum”
1. JAPAN- “Shoplifters”

These two films won the top two prizes in Cannes this year.

JAPAN's Hirokazu Koreeda is one of my two favorite Japanese directors (along with the underrated and brilliant Tetsuya Kawashima) and Palme d'Or winner "Shoplifters" is probably his most acclaimed film ever. It's also an accessible family drama and likely to play well with the Academy. Statistically it would be surprising for tiny LEBANON to be nominated twice in a row but "Capernaum" won the Jury Prize in Cannes and will likely do very well with the large committee. I think it will probably just miss out as some critics just don't like the film and think that it's a bit too simplistic and schmaltzy. This is traditionally exactly what the large committee likes....but this year they've reportedly made it easier for people to join the committee so anything can happen. The film is about the problems faced by the children of illegal migrants living in Lebanon. 

Now the statistics:

Number of Asian countries (excluding the former USSR) who have participated in the past
: 31

Number of countries participating this year:  22

Number of debuts: Zero.

Who's out?:  The nine stragglers have only sent a film once (Bhutan, Laos and Syria), twice (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka) or three times (Jordan, Malaysia and Mongolia). The most glaring absence this year is Malaysia which entered a film into the Golden Globes but has skipped the Oscars two years in a row, probably because the front-runners was a Chinese-language films and the Malaysian Academy  unofficially only considers Malay-language features. 

Number I predicted correctly- I did really bad, only predicting 5- Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Pakistan. 

Already Seen: I've seen 12 out of 22- Bangladesh (D+), Hong Kong (C), India (C-), Indonesia (A-), Iran (B+), Iraq (B-), Israel (B+), Korea (B), Palestine (D+), Taiwan (D), Thailand (C-)and Vietnam (B), but not the two front-runners. My favorites were "Marlina the Murderer" from Indonesia and "The Cakemaker" from Israel. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Definitely "Shoplifters", which I hear is one of the best films of the year. 

Number of Female Directors:  5- Anucha Boonyawatana (Thailand), Rima Das (India), Nadine Labaki (Lebanon), Mouly Surya (Indonesia) and co-director Kay Nguyen (Vietnam). 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 64-year old Lee Chang-dong (South Korea) is the oldest. It's unclear who the youngest director is, though it's probably Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan) or Amr Gamal (Yemen), who are both 35. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  We have 4 films in Arabic (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen), two films in Mandarin (China and Hong Kong), two in Persian (Afghanistan, Iran) and two in Indonesian (Indonesia and Singapore). The other ten are primarily in Assamese (India), Bengali, Filipino, French (Cambodia), Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Taiwanese, Thai, Urdu and Vietnamese, plus the Israeli film which is an even mix of Hebrew, German and English. 

Number of Documentaries: 2- Cambodia and Palestine. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: 3. 

Highest profile film:  In terms of buzz, it's probably "Burning" terms of critics "Shoplifters" terms of box-office, it's mega-hit "Operation Red Sea". 

Oscar History: Rithy Panh ("The Missing Picture") is the only Oscar nominee on the list though the three front-runners Nadine Labaki ("Caramel", "Where Do We Go Now?"), Hirokazu Koreeda ("Nobody Knows") and Lee Chang-dong ("Secret Sunshine", "Oasis", "Eoudong") have all been in the race before. 

So have Mostofa Sarwar Farooki of Bangladesh ("Television", "Third Person Singular Number"), the Mahmoudi Brothers of Afghanistan ("Parting" and "20 Cubic Meters of Love"), Mohamed Al-Daradji of Iraq ("Dreams", "Son of Babylon"), Chito Rono of the Philippines ("Dekada '70") and Dante Lam of Hong Kong ("To the Fore", possibly the worst Oscar submission in recent history). 

Most Notable Omissions:   CHINA had their best chance of a nomination in years for Zhang Yimou's "Shadow" but they dumped it for the unheralded action movie "Hidden Man". Others eliminated early: "The Black Kite" (Afghanistan), "The Spy Gone North" (South Korea), "Motorcycle Girl" (Pakistan), "The Reports on Sarah and Saleem" (Palestine), and "The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful" (Taiwan).  And tiny Bhutan had the chance to return with critically acclaimed "Honeygiver Among the Dogs".....but didn't. 

Familiar Faces: Steven Yeun ("Burning") of "The Walking Dead" fame is the most recognizable face to Western audiences. We also have Indian actor Irrfan Khan who stars in Bangladesh's submission and Nadine Labaki who directs and stars in "Capernaum" from her native Lebanon. 

Last year's race: These countries sent 24 films of which I saw 18. Three were superb and deserving of  an Oscar nomination- Iraq's "Dark Wind", Israel's "Foxtrot", Lebanon's "The Insult" though I also really loved the underdogs from Korea, Laos, Mongolia and Palestine. China, Taiwan and Thailand were the worst.