Sunday, March 2, 2014


I'm writing this Post roughly nine hours before the Oscar ceremony, which will take place at 10am on Monday here in South Korea. I finally got a hold of "The Broken Circle Breakdown", the Belgian submission and the only foreign film that I had a hard time seeing at Oscar season.

This is the first year in a long time where I really have no idea who is going to win the Oscar. Most years, the winner is obvious either to me ("Okuribito", "The Secret In Their Eyes"), or indeed to the entire world ("Amour", "A Separation").

This year is wide-open. Here are my final predictions:

DENMARK- "The Hunt" (40%)
ITALY- "The Great Beauty" (30%)
BELGIUM- "Broken Circle Breakdown" (15%)
PALESTINE- "Omar" (13%)
CAMBODIA- "The Missing Picture" (2%)

If you're interested, let's take a brief look at the five candidates (in alphabetical order)

BELGIUM, THE CEREBRAL CHOICE- "The Broken Circle Breakdown" shifts timelines so often that is impossible not to be confused. It's only when things start to pieced together that you realize there's a method to the director's madness. This challenging film takes on cancer, mortality, religion, American foreign policy, sex and a wonderful bluegrass soundtrack....but it's easy to see some people getting lost along the way.

CAMBODIA, THE SENTIMENTAL CHOICE- Cambodia's documentary is "The Missing Picture" is heart-wrenching look at the Khmer Rouge genocide from the point of view of a survivor. Rithy Panh, Cambodia's first-ever Oscar nominee, escaped from a concentration camp as a teenager and made this film about his family....none of whom survived. No story at the Oscar has a better backstory than this Cannes "Un Certain Regard" winner.

DENMARK, THE CRITIC'S CHOICE- Denmark's "The Hunt", about how a series of false accusations of child abuse ruin the life of a teacher living in a small town, probably has the best reviews of the five films. This ethical dream is a perfect combination of arthouse subject matter and yet manages to mainstream in its tale of a normal man's life spinning out of control.

ITALY, THE FAVORITE- Italy's "The Great Beauty" went home empty-handed at Cannes 2013....but with enough buzz to last the whole year. This ode to Rome and Federico Fellini has defied all of my expectations by winning the two major pre-cursors (the Golden Globes and BAFTA) as well as a host of other Best Foreign Film awards in the USA despite my opinion...long and verbose.

PALESTINE, THE EXCITING CHOICE- If you were to remake these five films, set them all in America in English with a major star, Belgium, Cambodia and Italy would still be 100% arthouse. Denmark might make a few more bucks at the box-office but Hany Abu-Assad's dynamic, twisty thriller "Omar" would be able to be a major hit. It's clearly the most exciting choice that Oscar voters could make, though the record in this category usually shies away from "exciting" films.

So who's going to win?

First off, documentaries are a tough sell in this category and CAMBODIA's "The Missing Picture", which relies mostly on narration (since, as the title implies, visual images of the Khmer Genocide are largely "missing").....It's a tough watch. PALESTINE's "Omar" is my favorite of the five films and it highlights important political perspectives that we rarely get to hear about in the United States....but this isn't the usual kind of movie that wins an Oscar.

The rules were tweaked this year so that voters don't have to prove they saw all five films (though they are asked not to vote if they haven't seen all five). This strongly gives an edge to "The Great Beauty" for two reasons....Number one, it was the most widely released of the five....A lot of people have been able to see it in the theatre (Note: AMPAS did sent out DVD screeners to members of all five films). To a lesser extent, this rule benefits "The Hunt", which also got a decent US release in LA, New York and elsewhere. "The Broken Circle Breakdown" doesn't make sense if you just watch the beginning of the film and "The Missing Picture" and "Omar" take awhile to hit their stride. "The Great Beauty" starts off with a bang.....(although in my opinion, it goes downhill in the second half when it strays into David Lynch territory).

So, it comes down to "The Hunt" and "The Great Beauty"....It's going to be close....More critics love "The Great Beauty" than I expected but I expect the more relatable "The Hunt" (like "The Secret in Their Eyes" to meet the more arty spectacle of "Beauty" (this year's "White Ribbon".)

Other Predictions:
Best Picture- "12 Years A Slave" (seen 8 out of 9)
Best Actor- Chiwetel Ejiofor (seen all)
Best Actress- Cate Blanchett (seen all)
Best Supporting Actor- Jared Leto (seen 4 of 5)
Best Supporting Actress- Lupita Nyongo (seen all)
Best Director- Alfonso Cuaron (seen all)
Best Animated Film- The Wind Rises (yes, over "Frozen")
Short Film- Just Before Losing Everything (ironically, the only one I haven't seen)

May the best films win!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Final Foreign Oscar Predictions

Damn.....I only got 2 out of 9 (Front-runner DENMARK plus BELGIUM).....That's certainly the worst I've ever done since I started predicting nominees in this category....I should have just used my "Alternate 9"....5 of the eventual shortlisted films- Bosnia, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy and Palestine- were on that list.

I saw "The Great Beauty", "The Hunt", "The Missing Picture" and "Omar".....I'll see "The Grandmaster" later this month.

A few notes....
1. The Elite Committee voted with their hearts....They got a lot of flak for not choosing front-runner "The Past", but they selected three films they thought were more deserving....They don't announce which three they chose, but presumably, this was good news for Cambodia's "The Missing Picture" and Hungary's "The Notebook".
2. Germany gets to advance even when nobody particularly likes their film.
3. So far, I've seen 20 of the 76 films, including four of the films on the shortlist. By far, the best films were CHILE's "Gloria" and NETHERLANDS' "Borgman". Once again, these excellent films were ignored, which is why I try to see all the movies on the list. You're sure to find five films that are better than all the nominees.
4. This year, it's harder to choose the Top Five than usual. I think there's only one film that is sure to make the Top Five (Denmark) and only one who is sure to be left out (Hungary). Everyone else is in with a chance....But here's what I think is going to happen.
1. DENMARK- "The Hunt"
2. BELGIUM- "The Broken Circle Breakdown"
3. GERMANY- "Two Lives"

Okay, so we all know that "The Hunt" is going to be nominated, and in all likelihood it will take home the fourth-ever Oscar for DENMARK....a feat only ever achieved by France, Italy, and Spain plus Japan (thanks to 3 Honorary Awards prior to the official inauguration of this category in 1956). "The Hunt" is a very good film- a drama about a man whose life is slowly destroyed by untrue allegations of child abuse- which is engaging, original and still mainstream.

I'm also feeling confident about the chances of BELGIUM's Dutch-language "The Broken Circle Breakdown". I haven't seen it yet, but word-of-mouth says this drama with a great bluegrass soundtrack is challenging and cerebral. I worried about it getting through the first round, but it should be appreciated by the Finalist Committee. As for GERMANY and "Two Lives", the Germans have shown time and time again that if they choose a solid, historical drama- even one that nobody particularly loves- they can get a nomination time after time (last year's "Barbara" was an exception, but the film was average and competition fierce).

4. HONG KONG- "The Grandmaster"
5. PALESTINE- "Omar"
6. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker"

For the middle tier, consider the pluses and minuses:

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker"
PLUSES: The return to form of Oscar-winning director Danis Tanovic ("No Man's Land"). A relatable and relevant true story about a poor family struggling to pay for medical treatment. An film festival favorite this year.
MINUSES: Made on a shoestring budget with non-professional actors. Oscar has repeatedly shown that they don't like "gritty" Eastern European dramas (just ask Romania).

HONG KONG, "The Grandmaster"
PLUSES: The film looks absolutely stunning and is a contender in a number of other Oscar categories (especially Cinematography and Art Direction). Well-known director (Wong Kar-wai). Wong re-edited a special version of the film especially to be relatable to American audiences. Backing of the Weinstein Brothers.
MINUSES: Oscar hasn't gone for a martial arts film in over a decade. Some critics don't like the re-edited, streamlined version.

PLUSES: It's a fast-paced and exciting thriller with endless twists, made by an Oscar-nominated director (Hany Abu-Assad) and starring a handsome newcomer lead.
MINUSES: The film has a virulently anti-Israel political slant....Will that turn off some voters? (it didn't with "Paradise Now", and "Omar" is a more exciting film).

Verdict: I think the gorgeous visuals and high-profile backing of "The Grandmaster" will beat out the cheap realism of "Iron Picker". They're all in with a very good chance!

7. ITALY- "The Great Beauty"
8. CAMBODIA- "The Missing Picture"
9. HUNGARY- "The Notebook"
The subject matter of HUNGARY's "The Notebook" makes it sound like a real winner....World War II! Small children!! Nazis!!! However, reviews have been mediocre, with many criticizing excessive voiceovers and others turned off by the two masochistic young boys trying to desensitive themselves to violence. I don't think there's much chance of making it to the next round.

Many people are predicting ITALY's glossy "The Great Beauty" as a finalist for sure, but I'm predicting it gets cuts in this round. I know it just won the Golden Globe, but I think the arty, verbose and Felliniesque treatise on aging and "beautiful people" in Rome is better suited to the largely European critics of the HFPA. "Beauty" is in with a shot, but it's not really a mainstream film.

No one could possibly root against CAMBODIA and their stirring French-language documentary "The Missing Picture"During the Khmer Rouge genocide, one-fourth of Cambodia's population was murdered in labor camps, and the country's film archives were largely destroyed. Director Rithy Panh was a teenager when he was deported to a camp with his family, who all perished. This documentary tries to tells their story while acknowledging, replacing "the missing pictures" with lovingly carved clay figurines. It's an exceptionally important film and an Oscar nomination would mean so much for the domestic film industry. Working against it, "Picture" didn't even make the Top 20 on the Best Documentary longlist, and I actually preferred Panh's earlier documentary "S21".

Friday, December 20, 2013

Final Predictions

I expect the list to be finalized today, so writing this on an iPhone.

This is a really tough year....75 or 76 films (I heard one was disqualified for no subtitles) and so few locks....

Fingers crossed for my favorite film so far- The Netherlands' dark horse "Borgman"
Almost locked:
1. IRAN- "The Past"
2. DENMARK- "The Hunt"

Predicted Shortlist
3. SERBIA- "Circles"
4. SAUDI ARABIA- "Wadjda"
5. CHILE- "Gloria"
6. BELGIUM- "Broken Circle Breakdown"
7. FINLAND- "The Disciple"
8. JAPAN- "The Great Passage"
9. MEXICO- "Heli" (surprise elite committee save)

Extremely strong alternates- 
10. PALESTINE- "Omar"
11. SINGAPORE- "Ilo Ilo"
12. AUSTRALIA- "The Rocket"
13. BOSNIA- "An Episode in the Life on an Iron Picker"
14. ITALY- "The Great Beauty"
15. GERMANY- "Two Lives"
16. KAZAKHSTAN- "Shal"
17. NETHERLANDS- "Borgman"
18. HONG KONG- "The Grandmaster"

Dark horses-
19. ROMANIA- "Child's Pose"
20. SLOVENIA- "Class Enemy"
21. ISRAEL- "Bethlehem"
22. MOROCCO- "God's Horses"
23. CANADA- "Gabrielle"
24. CAMBODIA- "The Missing Picture"
25. POLAND- "Walesa"

Real long-shots
26. HUNGARY- "The Notebook"
27. SPAIN- "15 Years and a Day"
28. PHILIPPINES- "Transit"
29. GEORGIA- "In Bloom"
30. CZECH REP.- "The Don Juans"
31. LUXEMBOURG- "Blind Spot"
32. ALBANIA- "Agon"
33. ICELAND- "Of Horses and Men"
34. CROATIA- "Halima's Path"

Everyone else (including Brazil and France)? Better luck next year 

FRANCE- "Renoir"

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2014- Western Europe (19 Films)

I think the final shortlist will be announced later this week so I'm publishing the Western Europeans only half-finished.....I'll do my list of final predictions tomorrow and try to fill in the rest of this chart later on.

If there's any justice, "Borgman" (Netherlands) will be nominated. It's probably the best film I saw this year. I hope the elite committee will "save" it, but I'm pessimistic about its chances. Great filmmaking is simply not enough to win an Oscar with these voters.

19. GREECE- "Boy Eating the Bird's Food"
18. ESTONIA- "Free Range"
Better luck next year for these two countries from the periphery of Western Europe....Both "Boy Eating the Bird's Food" from GREECE and "Free Range" from ESTONIA are surreal, borderline-experimental films...definitely not what Oscar goes for. On top of that, neither film is supposed to be very good. Reviews for "Bird's Food" (which did win Best Greek Film at Thessaloniki and the Hellenic Film Awards), about a 20-year old so hungry from the economic crisis that he resorts to eating both his bird's food and his own semen (sure to disturb the Oscar committee), have been weak outside of Greece. "Free Range", by surrealist (and weird) director Veiko Ounpuu is some kind of nonsense about a man whose life falls apart after he writes a film review of "The Tree of Life". Forget it.

17. SWEDEN- "Eat Sleep Die"
16. NORWAY- "I Am Yours"
15. AUSTRIA- "The Wall"
14. PORTUGAL- "Lines of Wellington"

SWEDEN and NORWAY have both selected debut features by female directors, about Muslim immigrants to Scandinavia. "Eat Sleep Die" won Best Picture at last year's Guldbagge Awards for its story of a Bosniak girl who loses her job. This minimalist, realist, hand-held film has gotten mixed reviews. It's supposed to be an average, yet not particularly involving film. "I Am Yours", about a Pakistani-Norwegian divorcee spurned by her traditional family for her cavalier attitude towards family and relationships. Once again, reviews have simply not been strong enough to compete here.

AUSTRIA's "The Wall" is an adaptation of "unfilmable" novel "Die Wand". It's the story of a 30-something woman in Austria who goes on a weekend vacation with friends to a rural mountain lodge. While her friends are away in town, a mysterious force field descends upon the area, trapping her (along with some animals) in an area perhaps a few square miles (?) with a host of animals. All life outside "the wall" appears to be frozen in time, and (presumably) dead. The problem is that the novel really is "unfilmable". Much of the action is narrated by talented actress Martina Gedrick but her struggle to survive by working the land, while realistic, is not exciting (though the conclusion is riveting). Set in 1810, PORTUGAL's historical drama "Lines of Wellington" is a dusty, overlong historical drama- typical of Portuguese Oscar submissions. "Wellington" may look pretty but its many characters and obscure history (a conflict between France and combined UK-Portugal forces) will doom it to failure, like all of Portugal's previous submissions.

Lots of interesting ideas here, but no chance at an Oscar.

13. SWITZERLAND- "More Than Honey"
12. FRANCE- "Renoir"
11. UNITED KINGDOM- "Metro Manila"
10. TURKEY- "Butterfly's Dream"

All four of these films have their pluses and minuses, but lack the gravitas to make the next round.

FRANCE is usually a front-runner and biopic "Renoir" is a sumptuous period drama about the last days of the acclaimed painter, and his relationship with his son (the soon-to-be great director Jean Renoir) and his artistic muse (a teenaged nude model) in the countryside during WWI. It's all very pretty, but it's also extremely boring. Although it has its admirers, too many people fall asleep for France to get nominated this year. Across the Channel, the UNITED KINGDOM has sent a Tagalog-language film made in the Philippines. An impoverished rural family emigrates to the city to seek a better life, but the family unwittingly becomes involved in crime and official corruption. This gritty, low-budget effort is said to be solid, but "gritty" rarely succeeds here.

SWITZERLAND has selected a documentary, which never bodes well with Oscar. While true that "Waltz with Bashir" and "Pina" did advance to the next round, these were not straightforward documentary films (I disliked both). "More Than Honey" is a technologically impressive documentary- seeing the bees work, dance and fly so close-up is eye-opening. It's about the declining numbers of honeybees, and the potentially devastating impact on global food production if they stop pollinating flowers and crops. However, I think the documentary format will work against it; some may think it should run in the Documentary category instead. And there's the obscure film from TURKEY- "The Butterfly's Dream". It's a period drama about two Turkish poets (both ill with tuberculosis) trying to woo the same girl through poetry (contrary to some reports on the Internet, it is NOT a gay story about two poets in love with each other). Though popular in Turkey, the film has not been widely seen internationally. The trailer looks gorgeous- like a Spanish or Italian festival film, but I imagine that two-hours-plus of subtitled poetry is not likely to translate well.

9. LUXEMBOURG- "Blind Spot"
8. SPAIN- "15 Years And a Day"
7. ICELAND- "Of Horses and Men"

LUXEMBOURG and SPAIN have chosen pretty standard genre pics. The tiny Grand Duchy has entered the race for the first time in four years with local hit "Blind Spot", a police mystery-thriller (aka un policier) about a closeted gay cop (from the country which now has the world's first openly gay male Prime Minister) trying to solve his brother's murder. It's all very good (you can watch it on iTunes) and filled with twists, but in the United States, it would be a standard hit policier  and not an Oscar nominee. The Spaniards have likewise chosen a cookie-cutter "coming-of-age-drama" about a boy sent to live with his grandfather after causing trouble at school. Reviews haven't been great...most say the script is weak and a bit clichéd....But this is the sort of film that the Large Committee has gone before. They love kids + old people....Still, with 76 films, I don't hold out much hope.

As for ICELAND, they've gone more original. It's the story of a small Icelandic town that relies on horse breeding. It's a quirky, tragicomic film, with stories partially told from the point of view of horses. Critics praise the filmmaking (the horse "actors" are particularly praised) but it's definitely an oddball film. It may place well in the rankings, but probably won't net Iceland a shortlist spot for the second year in a row. Still, definitely I will look for at Fests in 2014.

6. GERMANY- "Two Lives"
5. NETHERLANDS- "Borgman"
4. BELGIUM- "The Broken Circle Breakdown"

3. ITALY- "The Great Beauty" 

2. FINLAND- "The Disciple"
1. DENMARK- "The Hunt"

I see these two Scandinavian dramas (both touching on child abuse) as the Western European front-runners. DENMARK's acclaimed child abuse drama "The Hunt" is close to a lock. It's probably the best-reviewed Western European film of the year (certainly the best-reviewed of this mixed lot). Over the past year and a half (it debuted at Cannes 2012), it's gotten a solid reputation on the film festival circuit, and it's exactly the sort of film Oscar goes for (a morality tale). This drama about a lie about child abuse that turns a man's life upside down is (along with "The Past") one of the two front-runners to win the Oscar next year.

FINLAND is much more a gamble. Unlike much-loved Denmark, the Finns have only been nominated once before (for the undeserving "Man Without A Past"). "The Disciple" is a Swedish-language family drama about a domineering father living with his wife, son and young daughter at a remote lighthouse station. He begrudgingly agrees to briefly house an teenage apprentice. The two boys strike up a friendship and the tyrant of a father begins to favor the apprentice over his own son. Although the film hasn't been as strongly reviewed as, say, "The Great Beauty", it is universally said to be a well-photographer, solid story. Some people love it, others like it. It should receive solid scores across the board, making it a big possibility with the big committee. If it can't make The Top Six however, it likely will fail with the elite committee, looking for more arty/acclaimed works.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15. Three films are in German (Austria, Germany and Switzerland), two are in Dutch (Belgium, Netherlands) and two are in Swedish (Finland, Sweden). Theres one each in Danish, Estonian, French, Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Luxembourgish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog (UK) and Turkish.  The Portuguese submission is an unusual mishmash of languages.

Highest profile film: Denmark's The Hunt which has been doing the film festival circuit since Cannes 2012.  

Number of Western European countries participating this year: 19, including Estonia and Turkey.  

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21.  

Number of countries opting out: Only Greenland and Ireland, which did not have any foreign-language fiction feature films eligible.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: A weak field this year...Maybe five.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I got six......Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and- big surprise- also the UK. I came close with Finland, and probably would have gotten France but I skipped them this year.  

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from Austria (B-), France (C), Luxembourg (B), Netherlands (A+) and Switzerland (B+). I'm most excited to frontrunner The Hunt" from Denmark. I have the DVD and will watch before Christmas.

Feature Debuts: 6 films are feature debuts (Austria, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden).  

Number of Comedies: I would say none, although the Netherlands and Sweden are described by some as black comedies.  

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: One documentary (Switzerland) and one sort-of-horror film (Netherlands).

Oscar History: Markus Imhoof of Switzerland was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar way back in 1982 for "The Boat is Full" while Sean Ellis of the UK was nominated for Best Short Film in 2006 for "Cashback".

In addition to Imhoof (“The Boat is Full”, and also “Der Berg”), four other directors have been selected by their countries before: Veiko Õunpuu  (“The Temptation of St. Tony”, Estonia), Felix Van Groeningen (Belgium, “The Misfortunates”), Alex van Warmerdam (Netherlands, “The Northeners”) and Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark, “The Celebration”).

Every country has been nominated for an Oscar at least once except Estonia, Luxembourg, Portugal and Turkey.

Number of Female Directors: 5 out of 19- namely Ulrika Bengts (Finland), Iram Haq (Norway), Gabriele Pichler (Sweden) and Gracia Querejeta (Spain), plus Chilean-born widow Valeria Sarmiento (Portugal), who completed "Lines of Wellington" after her husband Raoul Ruiz died during pre-production.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 72-year old Markus Imhoof of Switzerland is the oldest Western European candidate this year, while 33-year old debut director Gabriele Pichler is the youngest.

Familiar Faces: Portugal's all-star "Lines of Wellington" features a huge number of Eurocentric celebrities in supporting roles, including Almodovar muse Marisa Paredes  (Spain), Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert (France), Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Perez (sort of France) plus American actor John Malkovich.

The most familiar face in a leading role this year is Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen ("The Hunt"), known to arthouse audiences for Oscar nominees "A Royal Affair" and "After the Wedding", as well as to mainstream American audiences for "Casino Royale" and the "Hannibal" TV series. Runner-ups include 2-time Norwegian Oscar nominee Liv Ullmann who co-stars in the German submission "Two Lives", and Maribel Verdu, who I think plays the Mom in Spain's "15 Years and a Day".

Also: German actress Martina Gedrick is the one-woman star of "The Wall" and should be familiar to Foreign Oscar watchers due to her lead roles in "The Lives of Others" and "Der Baader Meinhof Komplex". "Two Lives" lead actress Juliane Kohler starred in Oscar winner "Nowhere in Africa". 88-year old Michel Bouquet plays the title role in "Renoir" and has been a prolific stage/screen actor since the 1960s. Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson of Iceland co-stars in his seventh Oscar submission since 1996. American actor John Hurt narrates the English version of "More Than Honey" (though not the foreign-language version)

Controversies and Changes The biggest controversy was probably the decision by the producers of Cannes winner "Blue is the Warmest Color" not to release their film in French cinemas a few days earlier to compete for an Oscar. The producers claimed the release date rules were stupid. So was their decision to prevent "Blue" from repping France. In the past French producers have done a one-cinema qualifying release ("Joyeux Noel").

Omissions: I'd say the highest-profile omission was Francois Ozon's "In the House", from France. Also Austria's entire "Paradise" trilogy by Ulrich Seidl, especially sex tourism frontrunner "Paradise: Love"....Denmark's Indonesian-language documentary "The Act of Killing" (shortlisted for Best Documentary), Estonia's "A Lady in Paris" (starring Jeanne Moreau), Norway's big-budget thriller "Pioneer" (co-starring "American Beauty"'s Wes Bentley), Spain's bizarre love story "Cannibal" and Switzerland's mother-gay-son-dramedy "Rosie".

Last year's race: The Western Europeans hoggedsix of the nine spots on the shortlist last year (Austria, Denmark, France, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland). My favorite was Les Intouchables from France (A-, a fine film, even if it is a mainstream comedy) followed by the hauntingBlancanieves (B+, Spain). I also saw eventual winner Amour (B), nominees A Royal Affair (B+) and Kon-Tiki (B), plus the films from Belgium (B+), Estonia (D), Germany (C+), Greece (B-), Iceland (B-), Sweden (B) and Switzerland (B-).

Next up: Final predictions for the 9-film shortlist

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Year after year, my favorite Oscar films usually come from Asia, even though they seldom get nominated (none on the 9-film shortlist last year), though they do win occasionally ("Crouching Tiger" in 2001, "Departures" in 2009 and "A Separation" in 2012).

Most of these 19 films- ranging from Iran in the West to New Zealand in the Southeast- are out of luck....but they've got some very strong contenders in the mix and will definitely nab at least one or two spots on the list. Among the highlights are the first Pakistani film in contention in 50 years, two bloody horror movies from East Asia, and the return of Oscar winner of Asghar Farhadi.

19. THAILAND- "Countdown"
18. NEPAL- "Soongava"
17. INDIA- "The Good Road"
16. TAIWAN- "Soul"
15. INDONESIA- "Sang Kiai"

While I congratulate them for sending something different from the usual epics and arthouse flicks, Oscar was never likely to go for a foreign horror movie, so TAIWAN and THAILAND are out of luck. TAIWAN's "Soul" sounded fascinating. A man collapses at work and is sent to stay with his father in the rural mountains of Taiwan. As soon as his sister worries out loud that her brother is acting "strange", the body count starts to mount and the man's elderly father tries to cover up the crimes. The man replies in an otherworldly voice that "this body was I moved in". It's all very creepy and interesting, but ends up being a little too mysterious and whimsical for its own good. THAILAND's teen horror "Countdown" is loud, violent and obnoxious, and is shot like a music video. In the film, three Thai teens in New York are terrorized by a mysterious drug dealer named Jesus to repent for their secret sins on New Year's. It's all a lot of fun, but broken fingers, pulled-out teeth and over-the-top acting make this the "anti-Oscar".

INDIA and NEPAL are also out of their league this year. NEPAL returns to the Oscar race for the first time since 2006 with lesbian dance drama "Soongava: Dance of the Orchids", about a pair of lovers grappling with family and societal pressure to break up their relationship. It's said to be good but not more than that, and it's clearly a low-budget film. It's destined to be on the LGBT circuit. India was nearly guaranteed an Oscar nod for "The Lunchbox", but they selected Gujarati road movie "The Good Road" instead. The state of Gujarati has its own language and its own small film industry, and "Road" is said to be above and beyond the standard of regional Indian cinema. However, reviews have been tepid for this tale of three intersecting stories on the road in rural Gujarat, the most notable of which is a lost 9-year old girl who becomes trapped in a brothel.  

As for INDONESIA, "Sang Kiai" (aka "The Clerics") is a large-scale production highlighting peaceful Islamic resistance to the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, when they kicked out the Dutch and outdid the European colonialists in term of oppression and brutality. However, the film has barely been seen outside of Indonesia (not an Oscar power....), has zero buzz and I imagine the religious meaning and the political history will be too obscure for Hollywood voters. It looks pretty and well-made, but melodramatic.

14. PAKISTAN- "Zinda Bhaag"
13. AFGHANISTAN- "Wajma: An Afghan Love Story"
12. CHINA- "Back to 1942"
11. NEW ZEALAND- "White Lies"

All four of these countries have chosen interesting films, but they’ve mostly been absent at film festivals, and reviews simply aren’t strong enough to advance this year. The only major international award between them is a Best Screenplay Award at Sundance 2013 for the Afghan film.
I’m excited that AFGHANISTAN (which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film last year) and PAKISTAN (which won Best Documentary Short in 2012) are back, and their films are near the top of my list to look for in 2013.PAKISTAN has returned for the first time since 1963 with “Zinda Bhaag” a comedy-drama about three enterprising Pakistanis who seek to illegally emigrate to the West via a shady broker. Things gradually get darker as their dreams seem less and less likely to come true. “Zinda Bhaag” is said to be one of the best films to come out of Pakistan recently, but I think it’s likely to miss the mark, and its Bollywood-style song and dance numbers are said to detract from the plot for Western viewers.AFGHANISTAN has chosen “Wajma: An Afghan Love Story” (not to be confused with “Wadjda” or “Walesa”….jeez….), the story of a modern young Afghan woman whose life is destroyed when she becomes pregnant by her boyfriend. As serious as this issue is in the West, it is a matter of life or death in Afghanistan where honor killings, forced marriage and overseas abortion are all part of the plot. Sundance award notwithstanding, it’s said to be a simple film and won’t be able to stand out of the crowd.
An unwanted pregnancy also plagues one of the three lead characters in the female-centered “White Lies”, a rare Maori-language film fromNEW ZEALAND, set during the colonial era. In the film, a Maori medicine woman whose practices have been banned by the British is asked to secretly help terminate the unwanted pregnancy of a wealthy white settler woman. It supposed to be a fascinating cultural study, but a bit more Masterpiece Theatre than Oscary…
Lastly in this category, we have CHINA’s “Back to 1942”, the polar opposite of these three quiet underdogs from Afghanistan, New Zealand and Pakistan. Said to cost $US35 million dollars and co-starring two Oscar-winning Hollywood actors (Adrian Brody + Tim Robbins) in small, supporting roles, this period drama about a famine that struck Central China in the middle of World War II is anything but quiet. Featuring Japanese raids, political intrigue and a huge cast of extras, this is the story of two families- one wealthy, one poor- who flee their village together to flee both poor harvests and the advancing Japanese. Though the cinematography is impressive, it’s also not a particularly good movie. Reviews have mostly been poor outside of Chinese-speaking territories by critics who note that it manages to be cold despite the emotional subject matter.


10. SOUTH KOREA- "Juvenile Offender"
9. BANGLADESH- "Television"
8. KAZAKHSTAN- "The Old Man"
7. CAMBODIA- "The Missing Picture"

I don't expect any of these four films to have a shot either, but they'll place higher than the previous nine. Cambodia's autobiographical documentary has a tiny chance with the elite committee, but odds are against them.

BANGLADESH's comedy "Television" is probably the country's strongest Oscar entry yet, and is the biggest Bangladeshi on the film festival circuit since "The Clay Bird" (whose director was tragically killed in 2011). "Television" closed the 2012 Busan Film Festival and got a Best Picture nomination at this year's Asia-Pacific Screen Awards (the first time a Bangladeshi film was nominated for anything). It's a satire about a rural village whose obnoxious village headman has forbidden T.V. on dubious religious grounds. It's a crowd-pleaser but unlikely to advance (Variety refers to its production values as "down-to-earth", and notes it runs out of gas in the end). Never-nominated SOUTH KOREA, on the other hand, has their weakest candidate in years. AMPAS has consistently ignored great Korean films like "Mother", "Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring" and "King and the Clown", so I can't really see them choosing unheralded melodrama "Juvenile Offender", about a 15-year old juvenile delinquent who is reunited with the teenaged mother who abandoned him at birth. It's not a bad film, but it's not much more than a soap opera, and not up Korea's high standard Oscar submissions.
I had high hopes for Ermek Tursunov's "The Old Man" (aka "Shal") from KAZAKHSTAN. Tursunov directed the brilliant, beautiful wordless "Kelin" which shocked everyone by making the Final 9 in 2009/2010. It somehow failed to make the Top Five (how "Milk of Sorrow" beat it, I'll never understand) but it established Tursunov as a director to watch. "The Old Man", loosely based on Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" is about an old Kazakh shepherd and a perilous journey through fog and snow (encountering scary wolves and bandits). "The Old Man" could technically surprise like "Kelin", but it looks like an old-fashioned Soviet film (perhaps thematically appropriate, but the chief charm of "Kelin" was that it looked like a painting). Lastly, there's CAMBODIA's stirring documentary "The Missing Picture"...It's an impressive autobiographical documentary of Cambodia's greatest modern director- Rithy Panh- who was imprisoned with his family in a Khmer Rouge concentration camp at the age of 13. Most of his family was murdered. As the title implies, films of that era mostly do not exist, so Panh uses (French) narration and clay figures to recreate his childhood. It's a very special film, though not necessarily an easy watch. Before the Feature Documentary shortlist came out, I thought "Picture" might have a chance with the elite committee, but "Picture" failed to make the Top Fifteen, so I'm pessimistic. Still, a film worth watching.
6. PHILIPPINES- "Transit"
5. HONG KONG- "The Grandmaster"
4. SINGAPORE- "Ilo Ilo"

These three dark horses will likely place very well in the 76-nation race, and they all have strong elements in their favor.

HONG KONG's "The Grandmaster" is a sort of arthouse "Crouching Tiger"-cum- all-star martial-arts biopic by Wong Kar-wai. Wong is beloved by some (though not all), and the film is a box-office success. More helpful in the Oscar race are the Weinstein Brothers, who are backing the film. It's the biography of Ip Man (not to be confused with the recent Donnie Yen "Ip Man" series of films, also from Hong Kong), the martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee and helped popularize kung fu worldwide. Wong and his distributors did something very interesting this year. AMPAS rules state that the version of the film must be the same version that is screened in local cinemas. Wong released a Hong Kong version, that re-edited the film so that it would appeal more to Western audiences and released that second version in Hong Kong theatres for an Oscar qualifying run. Though some say the longer, Chinese version is a better film, the shorter, sleeker "Western" version is said to be less complicated, less challenging and more appealing to audiences unfamiliar with history. Possibly a very smart move. Other than "Crouching Tiger" (and a nomination for China's "Hero" two years later), Oscar traditionally ignores martial arts film, even when they're very good (i.e. "Curse of the Golden Flower") so I think "Grandmaster" may just miss the cut.
THE PHILIPPINES "Transit" is possibly the best reviewed of the "real" Asian nominees (i.e. not counting "The Past"). "Transit" takes place in Israel, where thousands of Filipinos work as manual laborers, nannys and engineers. Recent laws ordered the deportations of many Israeli-born Filipino children, including those (like the boy and girl in the film) who speak Hebrew and have few ties to the Philippines. Word of mouth is very positive, but the Philippines has never been nominated yet, and this is still at its heart a small, independent film. Won't make the cut.

I give better odds to "Ilo Ilo" (Cannes 2013) from SINGAPORE. The film, set during the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, centers on the relationship of an upper-middle-class Singapore family with their Filipina nanny....The spoiled 8-year old son initially bullies the new nanny....the working mother is jealous of the burdgeoning relationship between her son and his surrogate mother....the father is hiding the fact that he lost his job....It's been well-reviewed and reportedly stays on the right side of sentimental without being schmaltzy. This is key to winning over the large committee, which also tends to like foreign films with a lot of English dialogue (like the streets of Singapore, the film is multi-lingual, in a code-switching mixture of Hokkien, Mandarin, English and Tagalog). Australia or Singapore (probably not both) have a shot at grabbing a third Asian slot on the list.


3. AUSTRALIA- "The Rocket"
2. JAPAN- "The Great Passage"

1. IRAN- "The Past"

Okay....So we all know that French film "The Past", representing IRAN, is one of the favorites to win the award this year. Directed by Oscar winning director Asghar Farhadi, starring Oscar nominee Berenice Bejo, lauded by critics and celebrated by Internet "buzz", this psychological drama about a Persian man who goes to France to obtain a divorce from his wife (Bejo) is one of the front-runners. I agree. It's on the shortlist.

Can one-time Oscar superpower Japan or English-speaking Australia join Farhadi on the shortlist? Maybe. JAPAN's relatively obscure "The Great Passage" beat overwhelming favorite "Like Father, Like Son" to represent Japan. "Passage" is a comedy-drama about a shy, introverted researcher who is suddenly put in charge of the publication of a new dictionary. The man's love for the written word (and his awkwardness with speaking) and his dedication to the project help him to gain the confidence to woo a pretty neighbor. Look at the trailer and you'll immediately be reminded of Japan's last win- the wonderful "Departures". The Japanese do these sort of emotional, funny, light dramas very well (they would be nominated more often and they're a potential dark horse with the large committee.

AUSTRALIA's Sundance Film Festival favorite "The Rocket" is also strong. Oscar likes uplifting, sentimental stories, they like small children and they like films with a strong cultural slant (though not lately....). "The Rocket" is about one of a pair of twin boys (the other died at birth) who is believed to be cursed due to a local superstition regarding twins. His impoverished family is ordered relocated due to government construction of a dam (which is why this Lao-language film was banned in Laos!). This is very much a heartwarming story which has been a real audience pleaser....The little Lao boy will be competing directly with the little Singaporean boy in "Ilo Ilo" for one of the final slots on the list.
Now, the statistics:
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Three films are mostly in Mandarin Chinese (China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) and oddly two are in French (Cambodia and Iran). There’s one film each in Bengali, Dari, Hokkien Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Tagalog and Thai, plus the first-ever Oscar submissions ever in Gujarati (India), Lao (Australia), Maori (New Zealand) and Punjabi (Pakistan). The Filipino, Kazakhstani and Singaporean entries are quite multi-lingual.
Highest profile film: Asghar Farhadi’s France-based “The Past” certainly has the most buzz, though Wong Kar-wai’s all-star “The Grandmaster” has surely been seen by more people.
Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year: 19, including Australia, Iran and New Zealand
Number of countries that have participated in the past: 27.
Number of countries opting out: 8. Bhutan and Fiji have only ever sent films once each, and Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan have each sent films only twice. That means the most notable absences are Oscar nominee VIETNAM (nominated in 1994), which launched an open call for submissions, but only received one (“Blood Letter”) which did not meet eligibility requirements, and KYRGYZSTAN, which usually sends some great films and which is about to release its most expensive epic film yet, the $1.5 million “Kurmandjan Datka- Queen of the Mountains”. So, hopefully we’ll see them both back next year.
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Hmmm…..Maybe 5?
Number of countries I predicted correctly: I did very well, selecting 9 out of 19- Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, New Zealand and Singapore, and came close with Kazakhstan. Like everyone else, I was shocked by India’s choice , but even more so by Iran’s, which I assumed was too risqué for the Islamic government. 
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the films from Cambodia (B+), China (C+), Taiwan (B) and Thailand (B), but given the chance to see one more, I’d probably choose Afghanistan’s intriguing “Wajma: An Afghan Love Story”.
Feature Debuts: 6 films are feature debuts (Australia, India, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand)
Number of Comedies: Two-and-a-half….BANGLADESH’s village satire “Television”  and PAKISTAN’s serious immigration comedy “Zinda Bhaag”, plus romatic dramedy “The Great Passage” from JAPAN
Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: One documentary- CAMBODIA’s stirring documentary “The Missing Picture”, and two Asian horror films, THAILAND’s bizarre finger-snapping “Countdown” and TAIWAN’s more cerebral demonic “Soul”.
Oscar History:   Asghar Farhadi won the first-ever Oscar for Iran two years ago and he’s back again with “The Past”. He also likely came close to a shortlist spot for “About Elly”.
Five other directors have made it to this stage before- Mostofa Sarwar Farooki (Bangladesh; “Third Person Singular Number”), Feng Xiaogang (China, “The Banquet” for Hong Kong, “Aftershock” for China) Rithy Panh (Cambodia; “The Rice People”), Ermek Tursunov (Kazakhstan, “Kelin”) and Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong, “In the Mood for Love”).
Number of Female Directors: Two women - Hannah Espia for the Philippines (“Transit), and Dana Rotberg, a Mexican director who resides in New Zealand (“White Lies”).  Surprisingly enough, the Pakistani film has a female co-director from archrival India, namely Meenu Gaur, who moved to Pakistan in 2010.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Wong Kar-wai, arguably the most famous director in contention, is the oldest, although he’s only 57. Singapore’s Anthony Chen is only 29....Not sure how old Hannah Espia is.....

Familiar Faces:  The Asian countries are a star-studded lot. There couldn’t be more familiar faces to Oscar watchers than American Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, who co-star in China’s “Back to 1942”. Brody is good as a journalist trying to bring news of the grave famine to the rest of the world. Robbins however sports a fake Italian accent in a performance worthy of a Raspberry Award. Another Oscar nominee- Berenice Bejo (“The Artist”)- and up-and-coming French star Tahar Rahim (“The Prophet”) co-star in the Iranian nominee, “The Past” (which of course is really a French film). “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” co-stars Zhang Ziyi of China and Chang Chen of Taiwan re-unite in Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster” opposite local superstar Tony Leung (“Lust, Caution”).

Less well-known but still visible….Indonesian grande dame Christine Hakim co-stars in “Sang Kiai”…..In a great example of people-to-people diplomacy, one of India’s most acclaimed actors- Naseeruddin Shah-co-stars in the Pakistani submission “Zinda Bhaag”…..1960s martial arts star Yu Wang plays the lead in Taiwan’s “Soul”.

Controversies and Changes: The biggest controversy came out of India, when the favorite "The Lunchbox" was snubbed for the obscure "The Good Road". There was sniping back and forth between the Indian Film Academy, the director of "The Lunchbox", as well as snide comments (all true) from the film's foreign producers (including Bosnia's Danis Tanovic)....There was also disbelief but less noise at the snub of Hirokazu Koreeda's "Like Father, Like Son" in Japan.

Sour grapes marred Pakistan's first submission in 50 years as one of the rival shortlisted films ("Chambaili")  attacked "Zinda Bhaag" and the Pakistani selection committee for a number of ridiculous reasons, including claiming it was "corruption" that the decision was made before "Zinda Bhaag" had premiered in Pakistani cinemas (This is normal....Many countries choose a late release). Proving that nothing is simple in South Asia, there was also some griping in nearby Nepal that the winning director had recently naturalized to become a French citizen. A number of Iranians also complained about the selection of "The Past" instead of an "authentic" Iranian film. I agree somewhat, but those complaining were clearly more upset that the film was not Islamic enough rather than concerned with nationality. I like Farhadi so I'm happy the Iranian Academy and AMPAS decided to show some flexibility. I've always said AMPAS should normally defer to the country to decide a film's nationality.

Omissions: The blogosphere went crazy over the omission of pre-selection favorites "The Lunchbox" from India and "Like Father, Like Son" from Japan.
Also absent: Brillante Mendoza's "Thy Womb" (Philippines), "Modest Reception" (Iran) and "Harmony Lessons" (Kazakhstan).
Last year's race: The Asia-Pacific countries sent 18 films last year....I saw 12 including three that were really good- Korea's disturbing "Pieta" (A), Afghanistan's thought-provoking "The Patience Stone" (A-) and India's entertaining "Barfi" (B+). I also saw the films from Australia (C+..."Lore" was a big disappointment), Bangladesh ("Pleasure Boy Komola", B-), China ("Caught in the Web", B), Hong Kong ("Life Without Principle", C), Indonesia, ("The Dancer", C+), Malaysia ("Bunohan", C+), Singapore ("Already Famous", B+), Taiwan ("Touch of the Light", Winner of the DC International Film Festival, B) and Thailand ("Headshot", B+).
Next up: The candidates from Western Europe- Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK