Monday, June 19, 2017

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS (The Americas and Oceania)

It's that time of year again. Over the course of the next few months, over 80 countries will send their best films to Hollywood to compete for the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars. Every year, I see some of my favorite films by hunting down the films on the list. The best ones are rarely nominated. Last year's haunting "Eva Nova" from Slovakia was ignored.

Until now, 113 countries have entered the Oscar race at least once. Last year a record 89 countries announced submissions, although four of them were mysteriously disqualified (The disqualification of Armenia's "Earthquake" was particularly confusing).

I've decided the world into five regions.
The Americas and Oceania (22 countries)
Middle East and Africa (24 countries)
Eastern Europe (24 countries)
Asia (23 countries)
Western Europe (20 countries)

Additionally, two new countries- Ghana and the United Arab Emirates- have applied to send films for the first time.

Here are the likely submissions from The Americas and Oceania:


ARGENTINA- "Zama" Argentina is widely expected to select political thriller “La cordillera” (The Summit), the third feature by up-and-coming director Santiago Mitre, who was in the running for “The Student” and “Paulina” but who has never yet been selected to represent Argentina. It’s easily the most anticipated Argentina film of 2017, earned a spot in Cannes 2017 (Un Certain Regard) and co-stars Ricardo Darin and Paulina Garcia (and, for some strange reason, 80s star Christian Slater?!). Darin stars in virtually every film selected by the Argentine Academy. However, this drama about political corruption and scandal hasn’t been as well received as the other Mitre films and Argentina is in this to win, so I'm not confident about its chances. From my perspective, the two front-runners are historical dramas “Zama” and  “The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis”.  Set in the 17th century under Spanish rule, and based on one of Argentina’s most acclaimed novels, “Zama” is directed by Lucrecia Martel (“La cienaga”), another director who may be felt to be owed. IMDB says it will be released in December, while other sources say it will be released this summer...it's unclear. “The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” premiered at Cannes 2016 but wasn’t released in Argentina until November. It’s a moral dilemma drama set during the military dictatorship about a bureaucrat/family man who is handed information that two friends of friends are about to be arrested and “disappeared” by the military regime. The man must decide whether to risk his life to save the lives of these innocent strangers. “Francisco Sanctis” was released so long ago that it’s really at a disadvantage. However, it’s the only Best Picture nominee eligible from this year’s Silver Condor Awards and reviews are better than the buzzy “La cordillera”.  Rounding out the top five candidates are patriotic Falkland Islands war drama “Soldado Argentino solo conocido por Dios” (An Argentina Soldier Known Only to God) and “The Winter” about an old man surviving a rural winter with the young man due to replace him. I’ve heard some mention mystery-thriller “Black Snow” (also starring Ricardo Darin) and wacky comedy “You Only Live Once” (co-starring Gerard Depardieu), perhaps seeking to emulate “The Secret in Their Eyes” and “Wild Tales” respectively….but I don’t think they’ll factor in the vote. The Argentine Academy votes on their favorite choice and I think “Zama” will win this easily if its released, while “Francisco Sanctis” will get it if it's not. “La cordillera” will be a distant third.


AUSTRALIA- "One Less God" Australia should be sending “Salt Bridge”, a Hindi-language drama about Indian immigrants to a small Australian town. It’s billed as Australia’s first Bollywood film but there’s one problem- the film seems to have (foolishly) gotten an Oscar qualifying release in Los Angeles in 2015 so that they could enter the Best Original Song category. This is one for the rulebooks, but I believe that means “Salt Bridge” cannot enter the Foreign Film category this year. Another Aussie option is “One Less God”, a gripping new thriller about the international (and multi-lingual) travelers caught in the middle of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. It’s unclear exactly how much is in English. A final option is Albanian-language horror-thriller “Bloodlands”, made by an Australian director in Albania. There are actually quite a lot of multi-cultural stories coming out of Australia this year (“Ali’s Wedding”, “The Colour of Darkness”) but they’re all in English. So many “maybes”….I predict Australia tries their luck with “One Less God”.  


BOLIVIA- "El rio" Bolivia is expected to release about eight features in 2017, including a musical-comedy, a silly prison break caper and a dramatization of the sexual tortures of the Marquis de Sade. None of these sound like Oscar contenders. The Bolivians don’t always send a movie (one year their selection committee said none of the films were good enough….another year the producers of the selected film said they couldn’t subtitle the film in time) so they could skip this year. Their highest-profile film is clearly “Dark Skull” (Viajo Calavera), a mysterious thriller set in the country's tin mines. It’s probably appeared at more film festivals (it won Best Picture in Cartagena and other awards at Locarno and Rio de Janeiro) than any Bolivian film in history. However, I predict they send “El rio”, the debut feature of Juan Pablo Richter, about a teenager who falls in love with his stepmother. It hasn't premiered in cinemas yet but it boasts a fairly well-known local cast and is set in a photogenic border region near Brazil. In third: “Averno”, an adventure-drama. There’s even less info online but director Marcos Loayza is a fairly accomplished national director who has never been selected before.


BRAZIL- "The Great Mystical Circus" Brazil is always difficult to predict, but this year I have a strong feeling they will send “The Great Mystical Circus”, a colorful epic drama following a century in the history of a Brazilian circus. The trailer looks great, and the film represents the comeback of 77-year old Carlos “Caca” Diegues, who has directed six previous Brazilian submissions. It will be released right before the deadline, which should work in its favor.  Brazil has lots to choose from, but I’m pretty sure this will be their selection. Two other movies by previous selected directors also have a strong chance with the Brazilian committee, namely “A Movie Life” (Selton Mello), based on an acclaimed novel about a young cinema aficionado raised by his mother in the 1960s, and “Joaquim” (Marcelo Gomes), a historical drama (Berlinale 2017) about an 18th century national hero. Rounding out the top five: father-daughter drama “Mulher do Pai” and “Bingo: King of the Morning”, about an actor who finds anonymous fame as a beloved television clown. Brazil typically has a long shortlist of over a dozen films, and you can expect to also find films like “The Dionti Family, “Comeback”, “Gloria and Grace” and “The Two Irenes”. Won’t be released in time: “Piedade” and “Gabriel and the Mountain” (Cannes). 


CANADA- "Old Stone" Canada is a powerhouse in the Foreign Film category, with seven films shortlisted in the past eleven years (though my favorite submission- “I Killed My Mother”- was not). Proudly multicultural Canada has submitted films in Inuktikut and Hindi as well as French over the past decade and has potential submissions in all three languages this year, plus one in Mandarin Chinese. The Canadians have no less than eight contenders this year, and it’s possible we may see even more when they unveil the line-up at the Toronto International Film Festival. But for now, we have eight. “Maliglutit” (Searchers, dir: Zacharias Kunuk) and “Iqaluit” (Benoit Pilon) are dramas set amongst the indigenous peoples living in Canada’s far north, and both films are by previously submitted directors. “Searchers” is a revenge drama best described as an “Arctic western”, about a man seeking to rescue his kidnapped wife and daughter from an enemy clan. It’s gotten much more festival exposure than missing husband drama “Iqaluit” (co-starring Marie- Josée Crozee) so it has an edge. Canada’s Asian immigrant communities are represented by China-born Johnny Ma and India-born Deepa Mehta. Johnny Ma got a Canadian Best Picture nod and won Best First Feature at Toronto 2016 for “Old Stone”, a thriller about a taxi driver facing moral dilemmas and red tape in modern-day China. It has the edge over Oscar nominee Mehta’s experimental Hindi-language docudrama “Anatomy of Violence”, about a high-profile gang rape case in India. Canada’s foreign film entries have traditionally been in French, so they could choose leftist opus “Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Up Their Own Graves” (which won best Canadian Film at Toronto 2016, despite a three hour-plus running time),  “A Bag of Marbles” (Un sac de  billes), a drama about two brothers fleeing the Holocaust, “Boundaries” (Pays), a political satire focusing on three women conducting international treaty negotiations, and the upcoming “Et au pire, on se mariera” (loosely translated as “At the very least, we’ll get married”) by Lea Pool, about an Arab-Canadian girl who becomes obsessed with an older man.  Canada is in this to win, so I think the “weirdness” of “Those Who Make Revolution” and “Anatomy of Violence” will knock them out of the running, “Iqaluit” will be considered “too small”, “Boundaries” too local and “A Bag of Marbles” may be considered a majority French production (Canada already selected one of these last year). That leaves three contenders. I predict the Canadian nod will be dark horse thriller “Old Stone” which is more of an audience pleaser than the more challenging runner-up (and supposed frontrunner) “Searchers”. Lea Pool’s new film hasn’t premiered yet but I’m placing it a very close third.


CHILE- "A Fantastic Woman" Chile has a pretty easy decision this year- everyone agrees they will choose critically acclaimed transgender drama “A Fantastic Woman” (Una mujer fantastica) directed by the magnificent Sebastian Lelio (who directed “Gloria”, one of the best snubbed Oscar submissions ever). It won three awards at Berlinale, including Best Screenplay, and transgender stories are a trendy topic. Like most everyone, I’m pretty certain it’s in. What could possibly beat it? The closest things to competition are quirky family dramedy “Family Life” (Sundance), co-directed by Alicia Scherson (“Play”) and Cristian Jimenez (“Bonsai”), and hotly-anticipated sequel “Johnny 100 Pesos: 20 Years Later”. However, “Family” has no buzz, and American audiences won’t remember the first “Johnny 100 Pesos” (which represented Chile in this category way back in 1993!). Youth dramas “Bad Influence” and “Spider Girls” might have contended in a quieter year. This year, it's “Fantastic Woman”.


COLOMBIA- "The Animal's Wife" Colombia doesn’t have as much as they usually do…In fact, they didn’t have a single film in competition at their local Cartagena Film Festival (though eight films were screened in the National Section). I think they’ll probably go with the brutal “The Animal’s Wife” (La mujer del animal; Toronto 2016) about a novice nun who flees a convent to go to her sister’s village where she ends up held captive by a local village thug. It’s a difficult watch but it has very good reviews and is seen as a comeback for director Victor Gaviria (La vendedora de rosas). The runner-up is likely to be “Between Sea and Land” (Audience Award, Sundance) about a man unable to fulfill his dream of going to the ocean due to an obscure medical condition. Other options include “X500” about Afro-Colombians (though two dull films about that community barely got noticed in the Oscar race before), family drama “So Long Enthusiasm” which won Best Colombian Film amidst weak competition in Cartagena, and slight chess-themed drama “The Dragon’s Defense”, which quietly premiered in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and probably won’t be released in cinemas until after the deadline. In such a weak year, Colombia might also choose a documentary for the first time, e.g. narco doc “Wars of Others” (Guerras Ajenas) by HBO Latin America or “When the Guns Go Silent” about the peace negotiations with the FARC terrorists. My prediction: “The Animals’ Wife”.


COSTA RICA- "The Sound of Things" Costa Rica has reported that thirteen local films will be released in 2017- more than double the previous national record of six, set in 2010. The two front-runners for the Oscars are “The Sound of Things”, about a young nurse trying to get over her cousin’s suicide, and “Abrazame como antes”, about the lives of transsexual prostitutes living their lives far from the well-scrubbed image that makes the country famous. The two films duked it out at the 2017 Costa Rican Film Festival where “The Sound of Things” won Best Costa Rican Film and “Abrazame” was given the Jury Prize. Two upcoming films- “Violeta, al fin” by previously submitted director Hilda Hidalgo and “Dos Fridas” about Frida Kahlo’s Costa Rican caretaker- could also challenge if they turn out to be good. For now, I think “The Sound of Things” is the film to beat…it also competed at the Moscow Film Festival in 2016- a rare Class-A Festival appearance for a Costa Rican film.


CUBA- "The Last Days in Havana" Cuba has submitted only two films in the past five years. Films not only have to be good, they also have to be approved by the government-sponsored film body (ICAIC) that selects the Cuban nominee. Six Cuban films competed at the Habana International Film Festival in December, but only two won awards. “Last Days in Havana” won the Jury Prize and a tech prize and also earned a special screening slot at Berlinale 2017. It’s a nearly plotless film about daily life in Havana and it’s directed by Fernando Perez who has represented Cuba twice before. “Not Like Before” (Ya no es antes), about two lovers who meet in Cuba after forty years separated by the Cold War, is likely to do better with American audiences. It won Best Actor and the Audience Award in Havana. A seventh film- “Santa and Andres”- about a straight/gay friendship a la “Strawberry & Chocolate”- was pulled from the festival when the director refused to abide by the demands of the Cuban censors. Crime thriller “Vientos de la Habana” didn’t win anything but it’s received good notices in Europe and been extended into a TV miniseries version called “Four Nights in Havana”. New drama “Sergio & Sergei” by respected Cuban director Ernesto Daranas (“Conducta”) won’t be released in time. The nearly plotless “Last Days in Havana”- about a gay man and his neighbors- is the least likely to charm the Yakees, but it’s the most likely selection for Cuba, followed by “Not Liked Before”. 


DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- "Woodpeckers" The Dominican Republic is another country seeing film production booming, with around twenty films produced each of the last few years. This year, it’s difficult to see them choosing anything other than acclaimed prison drama “Woodpeckers” (Carpinteros) about male inmates who invent a secret sign language to communicate with the women’s prison next door. It competed at the Sundance Film Festival (a major achievement for a DR film) and director Jose Maria Cabral was selected before (for “Check Mate”, one of my favorite submissions of 2012). Unlikely but possible: boxing drama “Samba” did well at Tribeca and “Luis”, a drama about the moral dilemma faced by a police officer whose son commits a crime. The much-buzzed about “Cocote”, about faith and religious cults, is unlikely to be released in time but it’s probably next year’s submission.


ECUADOR- "Killa" Ecuador skipped the Oscars last year, although they did enter the race for the Goyas with “Alba”, a drama that has played at a number of international festivals including Rotterdam and Mumbai. It’s about a severely introverted 11-year old girl forced to care for her ailing mother. The Hollywood Reporter called it “heartbreaking”. Because of its October 2016 release date, “Alba” was eligible for the Goyas last year but the Oscars this year. However, the film failed to make the nomination stage at the Goyas, meaning it’s likely to have even less luck with Oscar. Probably looking to send something new, Ecuador is thus likely to send “Killa”, touted as the first film mostly in Quechua, the language of the Incas, which was released in March. "Killa" focuses on a Quechua journalist who faces off against a shady mining corporation. It looks like film production is down and Ecuador doesn’t have much to choose from this year.


FIJI- Nothing Fiji became the first Pacific island nation to enter the Oscar race in 2005. They’ve only produced a few feature films in their national history, but they have a thriving film industry as a location for foreign productions. This year, the only somewhat “local” movie I can find anything about is drama “Woh”, a Hindi-language drama about a woman who becomes involved with a man accused of murder. The directors (a married couple) were both born and raised in Fiji, though they made their film in Australia. It will not be sent.


GUATEMALA- "Septiembre o un Llanto en Silencio" Guatemala has submitted films twice and was considered somewhat of a dark horse contender for “Ixcanul” in 2015. This year, I think they may submit “Septiembre o Un Llanto en Silencio” (September, A Silent Cry), a drama set during the civil war of the 1980s. In the film, a woman loses her hearing after she survives a rebel attack on a bus. It’s set to premiere in early September. “Los gigantes no existen”- another drama set during the civil war- probably won’t be released in time but it may contend for next year.


MEXICO- "Un cuento de Circo and a Love Song" Mexico is really unclear this year. For the past two years, they’ve selected style (and big names) over substance, selecting “big” movies starring famous actors (and with large amounts of English) instead of the arthouse favorites. Nobody much liked “Desierto” but the presence of Gael Garcia Bernal and “Gravity” screenwriter Jonas Cuaron was apparently enough for Mexico to send the film to the Oscars. For this reason,  I’m wondering if they will send Oscar nominee Demian Bichir’s directorial debut “Un cuento de Circo & A Love Song”, co-starring Bichir and Eva Longoria (“Desperate Housewives”), about a man raised in a Mexican circus, who ends up in New Orleans. The trailer has no dialogue, so I’m not sure how much of the film is in Spanish and how much is in English. Gael Garcia Bernal also has a new movie- crime drama “Museo”- but I don’t think it will be released in time. Nor will Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”. However, most of Mexico’s contenders this year are arthouse. People are talking about fiction features “April’s Daughter” (winner, Jury Prize, Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2017), “The Untamed” (Best Director, Venice 2016) and “I Dream in Another Language” (winner, Audience Award, Sundance 2017) as well as documentaries “Devil’s Freedom” (Best Mexican Film, Guadalajara) and “Tempestad”. To that list, I’d add “El sueno del Mara’akame”, which did quite well at the recently announced Ariel nominations…The prizes won’t be handed out until July 11th though only “Mara’akame” and “Tempestad” will be competing there. Somehow, I don’t think any of these films are really likely….so I wouldn’t be surprised if Mexico selects some new film I’m unaware of, perhaps released at the very end of the year. But based on recent history, the Mexican Academy doesn’t like arthouse, so I’ll predict an upset for “Circo” with “I Dream in Another Language”, about a linguist who becomes involved in the lives of the elderly residents of a village who are believed to be the last speakers of a dying language, coming second.   
NEW ZEALAND- "One Thousand Ropes" New Zealand obviously makes most of their films in English, so they only enter the race when they have a film in a foreign language. So far, they’ve sent two films set in New Zealand (in Maori) and one each made by Kiwi directors in Samoa and Afghanistan.  This year, there’s little doubt they’ll send “One Thousand Ropes”, a Samoan-language supernaturally-tinged drama about Samoan immigrants in New Zealand. The story is about a father atoning for his history of violence, and his relationship with his teenaged daughter. It premiered in Berlinale 2017 and its director Tusi Tamasese directed the country’s first-ever Oscar hopeful in 2011. Hopefully it doesn’t have too much English to qualify.

NICARAGUA- "Sunflowers of Nicaragua" Nicaragua has submitted films three times, most recently with Florence Jaugey’s charming female boxing drama “La Yuma” in 2010. They probably won’t submit this year, but they could send Jaugey’s latest film, “Las girasoles de Nicaragua”, which premiered in January 2017. It’s a documentary about sex workers seeking legal reforms that would protect them from violence and abuse at the hand of their clients.

PANAMA- "Ilegitimo" Panama selected two documentaries to go to the Oscars before selecting their first fiction film last year. With their penchant for nonfiction, it’s highly possible they will send another documentary- “La Matamoros”- this year. The film won Best Picture in the regional section of Panama’s international film festival and was directed by Delfina Vidal, whose documentary “Box 25” was submitted but not accepted by AMPAS in 2015 (I’ve never heard a reason why). “La Matamoros” tells the story of feminist and labor activist Marta Matamoros. If they choose a fiction film, the front-runner is “Ilegítimo”, a social drama about a young boxer who has to support his girlfriend and his sick mother. I give “Ilegitimo” the slight edge to represent Panama. “Beyond Brotherhood” (Mas que hermanos), a soon-to-be-released drama about two orphaned teenagers co-starring Maria Conchita Alonso, is a potential dark horse.

PARAGUAY- "Los Buscadores" Paragauay was the most notable absentee from last year’s list of submissions. They entered the race for the first time in 2015 and launched an open call for submissions in 2016 but ended up not submitting a film. I’ve read that Paraguay’s most successful film- the brilliant Goya-nominated thriller “7 Boxes”- was considered for submission in 2012 but because Paraguay did not have a recognized committee, it couldn’t be sent. Paraguay will likely try to rectify that omission with the submission of “Los buscadores”, a treasure hunt adventure-comedy by the same co-directors, which is due to premiere in September 2017. They only have a couple of other eligible films, including documentary “Memory Exercises” and race car drama “Thunder”, but they would be highly unlikely choices.

PERU- "The Final Hour" Peru has had a fairly quiet year for cinema. Out of their four main contenders, I’d say the most likely is “The Final Hour”, a based-on-a-true-story political thriller set in the mid 1990s about the pursuit and capture of the leader of the Shining Path guerillas that terrorized Peru for over a decade. Most Americans know nothing about the Shining Path, but hopefully the thriller elements of the film will compensate for that. Director Eduardo Mendoza was selected once before in 2014, and the film will open on September 14th, right before the Oscar due date. That means it will be fresh in the minds of the Peruvian Academy. Its main competition comes from “Rosa Chumbe”, a long-awaited drama about an alcoholic policewoman who is given one final chance to reform and keep her job. It won Best Peruvian feature way back in 2015 but did not managed to get a domestic release until June 2017. Less likely: “One Last Afternoon” is a talky drama about a husband and wife reminiscing about their student activist days while finalizing their divorce. It won the Audience Award at the Lima International Film Festival. Out of the running: “The Dreamer” won Best Peruvian film in 2016 but this juvenile delinquent story has a dismal 4.7 on IMDB and no buzz. 

PUERTO RICO- "Extraterrestrials" Puerto Rico was unceremoniously uninvited from the competition in 2011 when AMPAS inexplicably made a new rule that U.S. territories could not enter the Oscar race (only Puerto Rico was affected). This is extremely unfair and I think that one day Puerto Rico will be invited once again. If that were to happen this year, they’d be likely to send “Extraterrestrials”, a quirky romantic comedy about a Puerto Rican woman “coming-out” to her conservative family after deciding to marry her physicist girlfriend.

URUGUAY- "Breathe" Uruguay doesn’t have many contenders this year, and with the eligibility period three-fourths over, only one (“El sereno”) has been released. I predict Uruguay will send “Respirar” (Breathe), due in August, a drama about a recent divorcee who discovers she’s pregnant with her ex-husband’s child. However, Uruguay typically likes to send comedies, so it’s entirely possible they’ll prefer “Otra historia del mundo” (July 20), about the lives of people in a small town or “Las olas” (The Waves) about an adult man who accidentally returns back in time to his childhood (though we still him as the adult that he is). “Neptunia” looks like a Gregg Araki (my favorite director) film, but that’s probably a bit too out there even for Uruguay. Until these films are actually seen by the public, Uruguay is a difficult one to predict.

VENEZUELA- "The Night of the Two Moons" Venezuela is on the brink of famine and political disintegration but they’ve managed to make some great movies, and their annual Festival del Cine Venezolano featured no less than seventeen new features. Historically, most of their Oscar submissions come from the Festival (though not last year). At first, I was ready to predict “La planta insolente”, a period drama directed by 85-year old Roman Chalbaud. Chalbaud directed Venezuela’s first-ever submission (way back in 1977) and he was honored at this year’s festival. However, “La plante” looks old-fashioned and cheaply made and failed to win a single award. Three Venezuelan films have made a mark on international festivals this year, namely “La Familia” (Cannes), “El amparo” (San Sebastian) and “La soledad” (Audience Award in Miami), although none has yet secured a domestic release. Ultimately, two films dominated the awards at Cine Venezolano, namely "El amparo" (which won six awards including Best Picture) and gritty boxing biopic “El inca” (which won seven, including Director and Screenplay). "El Inca"'s success was a bit surprising since the film had previously been banned due to objections from the real life boxer's family…the ban has since been lifted and the film is eligible. Period drama "Maisanta" won four tech awards, and geriatric road comedy “Mas vivos que nunca” won some sort of People's Choice Award…but the Venezuelan Academy is usually pretty serious.  Venezuela's biggest domestic hit of 2016- transgender drama “Tamara” is also eligible. Last but not least, there’s the upcoming “La noche de las dos lunas” by the director of Goya winner “My Straight Son”, one of the best foreign films of 2012 that was not submitted that year. It’s an intriguing new drama about a woman mistakenly inseminated with twin embryos from another woman, and the battle of both women to keep the kids. It premieres in September. Who knew the race in Venezuela would be so exciting? Top Five:  It’s tough, but I predict “La noche de las lunas” gets the nod, followed by the grim Best Picture winner “El amparo”, a true story from the 80s about fishermen caught between the violence of the longstanding Colombia-Venezuela conflict. followed by boxing biopic "Inca", gender-bending “Tamara” and “La soledad”, about a family trying to survive the current economic crisis. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

FINAL PREDICTION- A second win for Farhadi

While here in Pakistan, I haven't been able to see as many Oscar nominees as I usually do....

This year's foreign film race is a competitive four-way race for the first time in years. That's kind of exciting after the "bleh" years of "Son of Saul" and "Ida", which romped through the precursors to predictable, boring Oscar wins.

Only "Tanna", the lovely film from VANUATU (but representing Australia) is out of the running. They were a shock nominee and should be happy finishing a respectable fifth place out of the 83 countries competing.

"A Man Called Ove" and "Toni Erdmann" will benefit from the new rule established a few years ago that you don't have to prove you've seen all five nominees to vote. SWEDEN's "A Man Called Ove" got the widest release of any of the five films, grossing 3.5 million dollars in the USA. GERMANY's three-hour dramedy "Toni Erdmann" has been the critic's choice most of the year, which means it has the highest name recognition for any voters that just vote for what they heard was good.

"Land of Mine" is the traditional choice to win the award....a World War II movie that pushes all the right buttons and packs an emotional wallop. For most of the year, I was pretty certain it would be the eventual winner. But it has been the least visible of the five and American viewers have barely been able to see it (though it did have a qualifying Oscar release) unlike "Tanna" (currently on VOD) or the others which got a wider viewing.

Ultimately, I'm going to predict "The Salesman" and a second win for Asghar Farhadi from IRAN. It seems like very few people think "The Salesman" is the best Foreign Film of the year....But reviews have been solid across the board unlike "Toni" (overlong....touted as a hilarious comedy even though it is really a comic drama), "Ove" (which many think is formulaic and standard) and "Tanna" (slow and obscure). Most of all, "The Salesman" could benefit from a political bump due to liberal voters in Hollywood wanting to show that they are against the campaign of Islamophobia pushed by this administration. When the travel ban (now rescinded) seemed to bar director Farhadi and actress Taraneh Alidoosti from attending the ceremony (which they are now boycotting), Americans got angry. I think "The Salesman" has the best shot at winning, though it's by no means a lock

THE SALESMAN- 40%
A MAN CALLED OVE- 28%
LAND OF MINE- 17%
TONI ERDMANN- 14%
TANNA- 1%

I also managed to watch 11 of the 15 nominated short films

Best Live Action Short
Will Win:    Enemies Within (France), A-  
Should Win:  The Woman and the TGV (Switzerland), A 
Could Win: Sing (Hungary) C+
No Chance: the disappointing Timecode (Spain) D and Silent Night (Denmark) C-

Best Animated Short
Will Win: Piper, A
Should Win:  Piper
Could Win: chilling 6-minute western "Borrowed Time", A-
No Chance: the original 360 degree animation "Pearl" B+, Pear Cider and Cigarettes (which I admit I didn't see) and Blind Vaysha, C

Sunday, January 22, 2017

FINAL NOMINATION PREDICTIONS 2017

With many of the frontrunners (“Neruda”, “Elle”, “Clash”, “Olli Maki”) replaced by a series of generally well-received films with little Oscar buzz, this is going to be a difficult year to predict. Really, any of these nine films has a chance to be nominated but here's my rank order: 

IN: 
1. DENMARK- "Land of Mine"
2. IRAN- "The Salesman"
3. GERMANY- "Toni Erdmann"
4. NORWAY- "The King's Choice"
5. CANADA- "It's Only the End of the World"

OUT:
6. AUSTRALIA- "Tanna"
7. SWITZERLAND- "Ma vie de courgette"
8. SWEDEN- "A Man Called Ove"
9. RUSSIA- "Paradise"

As usual, I’ve tried to divide the films into three tiers:

FAIRLY SAFE
1. DENMARK- "Land of Mine"
2. IRAN- "The Salesman"
3. GERMANY- "Toni Erdmann"


These three front-runners have generally been seen as “safe” throughout awards season and Golden Globe nominations for two of them (“Toni Erdmann” and “The Salesman”) have led me to believe that all three will be on the list on Tuesday morning. Though it failed at the Globes, Denmark has been nominated four of the past six years and I haven’t seen a single bad word about World War II drama “Land of Mine”, which focuses on the relationship between victorious Danish forces and young German POW conscripts forced to clear land mines that Germany used to terrorize Denmark during the war. I see the Danes as the dark horse front-runner to win the 2017 Oscar. And though some complain that father-daughter dramedy “Toni Erdmann” is overlong and others say Asghar Farhadi’s theatrical thriller “The Salesman” is not his best work, both have very strong, solid reviews overall. So, I’d say that all three of these are in.

ON THE BUBBLE
4. NORWAY- "The King's Choice"
5. CANADA- "It's Only the End of the World"
6. AUSTRALIA- "Tanna"
Let’s take a look at the three films on the bubble. I keep going back and forth as to which of these three films will fail to make the list. Most people, in fact, are predicting all three will fail. 

AUSTRALIA- “Tanna”
In Brief:                                Directed by two Australia-based directors, “Tanna” is an exotic “Romeo + Juliet” story set during the late 20th century in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
Pros:                      The cinematography is beautiful. Though it takes place in a remote island, the story is universal and relatable.
Cons:    Oscar seems to have lost its taste for “exotic”. Film starts off somewhat slow. 
Hoping to emulate:         “Theeb”, "Embrace of the Serpent" and “Caravan”

CANADA- “It’s Only the End of the World”
In Brief:                Xavier Dolan goes to France in this all-star drama about a man who tells his (all-star cast) family that he’s dying.
Pros:      This sort of all-star family drama is traditional Oscar bait. Big stars, emotional pull and very much a "French" flavor. Reviews have been stronger in the US than internationally. Won two awards at Cannes but…
Cons:   Reviews have been very mixed, with many calling it Dolan’s weakest film. The film does descend a bit into hysterics. Xavier Dolan has never found favor with Oscar before. Some think the film is genuinely bad. 
Hoping to emulate:     Every French nominee of the past 50 years.     

NORWAY- “The King’s Choice”
In Brief:                                An obscure "true story" domestic box-office hit about the Norwegian King’s decision in 1940 to fight Nazi Germany instead of agreeing to an ultimatum to  join the Nazi cause.
Pros:      World War II! And it’s a rare WWII story that they've probably never heard of (Denmark is also trying for this angle). It's a more intellectual war film rather than an action movie, which could play for or against it. 
Cons:     Obscure Norwegian history. Some say it’s really a film for a domestic audience
Hoping to emulate:      "Sophie Scholl", "Baader Meinhof Komplex", 

Bottom Line- I think the cerebral war film from Norway will play well with Oscar voters as will the French family drama. Though they've been shortlisted twice, Australia will likely have to wait for their first-ever nomination in this category. 

LONG-SHOTS
7. SWITZERLAND- "Ma vie de courgette"
8. SWEDEN- "A Man Called Ove"
9. RUSSIA- "Paradise"

RUSSIA's“Paradise” is probably the longest of long shots on this year’s list. This grim, artistic black + white WWII film has more detractors than fans and was surely one of the “elite committee” saves. Like the similarly grim “The Notebook” from Hungary- which was shortlisted a few years ago- this Oscar journey of this divisive pick is sure to end here.

SWEDEN's tragicomic “A Man Called Ove” is said to have had a rapturous reception with the geriatric older members of the “Large Committee”. They were perhaps best able to appreciate its story of a cranky widower learning to enjoy life again, after the death of his beloved wife. It’s a perfectly pleasant and well-made film, but it’s also formulaic and largely forgettable. Although I liked the film, it seems to fit the mold of other “pleasant”, unchallenging comedies that get cut at this stage (“Les Intouchables”, “Simple Simon”, “Superclasico”). 

Which brings us to SWITZERLAND….I keep going back and forth on animated tale, “My Life as a Zucchini”. In many ways, it seems to be the most beloved film on the list. Everyone thinks it’s lovely and touching. Everyone likes it…..meaning it could become the second-ever animated film to score a nomination in this category. However, I’m still predicting that this spare 75-minute film will ultimately be relegated to the Best Animated Film category.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Final Predictions....

So, I've heard that the final list will come out tomorrow (Friday) but that it could come out as early as today (Thursday) so I'm rushing to post this final post.

So many people are predicting the (terrible) documentary "Fire at Sea" from Italy and the animated film from Switzerland, but I find it hard to believe that they will be able to break out of their respective genres especially since they are both on the lists for Best Documentary and Best Animated Film at the Oscars (and especially since "Fire at Sea" is a bad documentary).

Will they care about giving a posthumous honor to Poland's Andrzei Wajda, even though his final film is not considered his best? Will they reward outstanding filmmaking (Slovakia's "Eva Nova") and/or challenging topics (France's "Elle")? Or go with friendlier, easier choices (Sweden's "A Man Called Ove", Brazil's "Little Secret")?

And will it matter that so many former winners (Almodovar, Farhadi and Tanovic plus Honorory Oscar winner Wajda) and nominees (Abu Assad, Larrain, van der Oest, Yamada) are competing against each other?

And can Egypt finally get their first nomination after over 50 years of trying? Can any smaller countries surprise?

Here are my predictions:

NEARLY A LOCK 
1. DENMARK- "Land of Mine"
2. GERMANY- "Toni Erdmann"

PREDICTED
3. NETHERLANDS- "Tonio"
4. FINLAND- "The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki" (Elite Committee Save)
5. EGYPT- "Clash" (Elite Committee Save)
6. SWEDEN- "A Man Called Ove"
7. IRAN- "The Salesman"
8. CHILE- "Neruda"
9. BRAZIL- "Little Secret" (this year's surprise WTF nominee)

STRONG ALTERNATES:
10. FRANCE- "Elle"
11. SPAIN- "Julieta"
12. SINGAPORE- "Apprentice"
13. ISRAEL- "Sandstorm"
14. CANADA- "Juste le fin du monde"
15. RUSSIA- "Paradise"
16. SLOVAKIA- "Eva Nova" 
17. NORWAY- "The King's Choice"
18. ARGENTINA- "The Distinguished Citizen"

DARK HORSES:
19. ALGERIA- "The Well"
20. AUSTRALIA- "Tanna"
21. MACEDONIA- "The Liberation of Skopje"
22. POLAND- "Afterimage" (only because Wajda is dead)
23. SOUTH KOREA- "Age of Shadows"
24. SWITZERLAND- "Ma vie de courgette"
25. VENEZUELA- "From Afar"

LONG SHOTS
26. GEORGIA- "House of Others"
27. ROMANIA- "Sieranevada"
28. SOUTH AFRICA- "Call Me Thief"
29. ITALY- "Fire at Sea" (Dear Academy: Please don't choose this one!)
30. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "Death in Sarajevo"
31. SERBIA- "Train Driver's Diary"
32. VIETNAM- "Yellow Flowers on Green Grass"

LONGEST OF LONG SHOTS
33. ESTONIA- "Mother"
34. PALESTINE- "The Idol"
35. MONTENEGRO- "The Black Pin"
36. GREECE- "Chevalier"
37. NEPAL- "The Black Hen"
38. ICELAND- "Sparrows"
39. KYRGYZSTAN- "A Father's Will"
40. TURKEY- "Cold of Kalandar"

And just for fun.....

Bottom-ranked of the 85 films:
85. PERU- "Videophilia"
84. THAILAND- "Karma"
83. LITHUANIA- "Seneca's Day"

Most Likely to get their first-ever nomination: EGYPT- "Clash"
Runner-ups: SINGAPORE- "Apprentice", SLOVAKIA- "Eva Nova"

Good luck to all 85 countries!


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2017 Foreign Oscar Predictions- THE AMERICAS (15 films)


And here's the final batch of films, representing the Americas.....

OH, HELL NO!

15. PERU- "Videophilia (And Other Viral Syndromes)
14. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- "Sugar Fields" (Flor de Azucar)

"Videophilia" from PERU is probably the least-likely of the 85 films. That doesn't mean it's the worst film, but one look at the plot (A teenage girl from Lima meets a boy online, and he's obsessed with conspiracies, porn and prophecies. When they meet in real life, supernatural events begin to unfold around them.) or the trailer with its hallucinogenic, blurry images will let you know that this "out-there" teen drama is not getting anywhere near the Hollywood Theatre. As for the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, "Sugar Fields" is one of the only films on the list that actually got bad reviews from critics (and currently has the lowest rating on IMDB- 4.6). Nobody seems to like the film, which is said to be pretty but confusing, featuring families suffering under the years of the Trujillo dictatorship.


OUT OF THE RUNNING


13. COLOMBIA- "Alias Maria"
12. BOLIVIA- "Sealed Cargo" (Carga sellada)

11. PANAMA- "Salsipuedes"
10. COSTA RICA- "About Us" (Entonces nosotros)


This year's two films from Central America should be proud to represent their countries. PANAMA has selected low-budget barrio drama "Salsipuedes", about a 20-year old Panamanian teen raised in the USA, who returns home for his grandfather's funeral and meets his father who's currently serving time in prison. COSTA RICA has selected quirky romantic comedy/road movie "About Us", about a man who goes on a road trip to rekindle his romance with his bored girlfriend, only to meet another woman on the way. The trailer looks absolutely charming and ripe for an American remake. Both these films are probably good but not the sort of movies that get recognized here.

COLOMBIA has selected "Alias Maria", about a pregnant child soldier fighting in the jungle. Though this worked for "War Witch" a few years ago, most critics found "Maria" to be a bit disappointing and the film is described as cold and unemotional despite the serious plight of its protagonist. That leaves BOLIVIA which has selected eco-thriller/modern-day western "Sealed Cargo". The two reviews I've read say almost exactly the same things- it's entertaining and funny and tries really hard, though both mention the film "lacks artistry". In other words, it's not a great film, but it's a fun ride. And sometimes isn't that why we go the movies? For the record, "Sealed Cargo" follows a crew guarding a train carrying toxic waste through the highlands of Bolivia.

GOOD BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH


9. CUBA- "The Companion" (El acompanante)
8. MEXICO- "Desierto"
7. URUGUAY- "Breadcrumbs" (Migas de pan)
6. ECUADOR- "Such Is Life in the Tropics" (Sin muertos no hay carnaval)

This group includes two obscure South American dramas with zero buzz and two North American films that have been shown in the States to mixed reaction.

I actually predicted MEXICO would send "Desierto" last year, not knowing that the film wouldn't premiere in Mexico until April 2016. It got mostly poor reviews when it premiered in Toronto 2015 so I basically forgot about it until Mexico selected it as their nominee this year. "Desierto" bills itself as a thriller but it's actually more correctly termed a "horror movie" as a psychotic American redneck (presumably a Trump voter) hunts down a group of Mexicans who are crossing the border illegally. It's certainly very topical but the over-the-top acting by the loony Yanqui (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, "Walking Dead") and graphic violence won't win it any fans here. Besides, Mexico almost always chooses these border thrillers year after year ("Miss Bala", "Backyard", "600 Miles") but none of them have ever been nominated.

Two of South America's smallest countries- Ecuador and Uruguay- have a slightly better chance. URUGUAY has chosen "Breadcrumbs", starring Argentine-Spanish actress Cecilia Roth as an adult survivor of sexual violence, dating from the time when she was an activist protesting the military dictatorship of the 70s and 80s. The one review I've seen (the Hollywood Reporter) says it's an important topic but it's "schlocky" and "unexciting". Sebastian Cordero of ECUADOR reportedly just missed out on an Oscar nomination over a decade ago for the all-but-forgotten thriller "Cronicas", starring John Leguizamo and Damien Alcazar. This year, Ecuador's most famous international director is back with "Such is Life in the Tropics", though the Spanish title is better translated as "It's not a real party unless someone dies". It's set amidst the intrigue of a group of land-grabbers trying to evict poor slumdwellers from their homes, with numerous stories skillfully weaved together. Cordero is a talented director and this might be a contender if it had more buzz.

DARK HORSE POSSIBILITIES
5. VENEZUELA- "From Afar" (Desde alla)
4. ARGENTINA- "The Distinguished Citizen"
3. CANADA- "It's Only the End of the World" (Juste le fin du monde)

These three films have an uphill battle for a number of reasons.

Desde alla from VENEZUELA is a great film. It's original, it's unpredictable and it won the Grand Prize at the 2015 Venice Film Festival. Of the twelve films I've actually seen (out of 85), it's also the most memorable, with the ending continuing to raise tantalizing questions (though not in the WTF way that some Euro directors operate). However, the film is LGBT (rarely rewarded here, though last year's "Viva" was an exception), it's gritty and urban (no beautiful landscapes here) and some people frankly dislike it. The plot revolves around a 50-year old gay man in Venezuela who engages in psychological mind games with a young gang member. The less you know before you see it, the better.

Speaking of LGBT, Xavier Dolan is back with "It's Only the End of the World", a French drama representing CANADA with an all-star cast (including Oscar nominee Marion Cotillard) about a writer who assembles his dysfunctional family all together to tell them he's dying. This is also a hard one. Oscar has shown no love for Dolan's top-notch queer dramas ("Mommy" and the brilliant "I Killed My Mother") but this one is different. Reviews have been decidely mixed and critical of the screaming matches that often mark Dolan's films, but it still managed to win two awards at Cannes and Oscar loves French films.....This may have a better shot than the better-reviewed "Mommy".

Speaking of mixed reviews, ARGENTINA's comedy "The Distinguished Citizen" is about an award-winning author based in Europe who has made a career out of telling less-than-flattering stories about the rural countryside town where he was raised. So, when he returns home after decades away, some locals are excited while others less than impressed . This sounds like a great idea but it seems to be "love it or hate it". I've heard some say the film is brilliant while others say it's amateurish. Most say it's a crowdpleaser. This divisive reaction doesn't bode well when you're competing against 84 other movies.

FRONT-RUNNERS


2. BRAZIL- "Little Secret"
1. CHILE- "Neruda"

Many are predicting Pablo Larrain's biopic "Neruda" from CHILE will be the film to beat this year. It's gotten good reviews for being a "different kind" of biopic as it creates a fictional "chase" as right-wing Chilean authorities pursue the Nobel Prize-winning poet for his political views. And I agree "Neruda" has an excellent chance at being selected. But there are no locks in this category and I think "Neruda" will be on the bubble just as Larrain's "Club" (which was not nominated) and "No" (which was) likely were. The prolific Larrain also directed this year's wannabe Best Picture nominee "Jackie" (another biopic). If "Neruda" fails to make the Top Six will the elite committee save it? Or decide that Larrain will have a chance elsewhere? Hard to tell.


As for BRAZIL....This is a tough one. The film is a drama telling three separate stories, all connected by one "little secret". The film has not gotten the best reviews but it seems to be exactly the sort of strong narrative drama that the large committee goes for. The film is roughly 40% (I've heard different numbers from different people) in English, which could be a positive thing for voters weary of watching 85 films with subtitles. Ultimately, I think Brazil will have a hard time making the Top Six and the elite committee won't vote for it....But it's definitely a stronger possibility than people think.



Now the statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 19

Number of countries participating this year:  15

Number of debuts: Zero

Number of countries opting out: Four. PARAGUAY entered the race for the first time last year and this year they publicly launched an open call for submissions....but they didn't send a film for unknown reasons. Also absent: Guatemala and Nicaragua, plus PUERTO RICO which (unfairly) is no longer invited. 

Already Seen: Just one- "Desde Alla" from VENEZUELA. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: I'm a huge Xavier Dolan fan, so without a doubt it's "It's Only the End of the World" from CANADA. 

Feature Debuts:  Only three countries selected features debuts, namely: Juan Daniel F. Molero (Peru), Ricardo Aguilar Navarro + Manolito Rodriguez (Panama) and Lorenzo Vigas (Venezuela)

Number of Female Directors Just two- Manane Rodríguez (Uruguay) and 74-year old Julia Vargas Weise (Bolivia). 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Even after years of making films, 27-year old Xavier Dolan of Canada is still the youngest in the group (and possibly of all the directors....Lebanon's director was also born in 1989). The oldest is Julia Vargas Weis

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Unsurprisingly, most of the films (13 to be exact) are in Spanish. The other two are in French and Portuguese, though the Brazilian film is said to be nearly 50% English. 

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries: Zero

Number of comedies:  TWO. Argentina's satirical "Distinguished Citizen" and Costa Rica's rom-com "About Us", though Peru's messy abdurdist "Videophilia" could be anything really. 

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

Highest profile film:  Without a doubt, Pablo Larrain's "Neruda" from Chile. 

Oscar History: Pablo Larrain, representing Chile a record fourth time, was nominated on his second try for "No". He's the only Oscar nominee in contention from Latin America. Mexican writer/director Jonas Cuaron was recognized as one of the producers of "Gravity" for the BAFTAs but was not recognized at the Oscars being that he did not receive a Best Picture nomination (and "Gravity" famously failed to get a Screenplay nomination). 

Xavier Dolan of Canada ("I Killed My Mother", "Mommy") is on his third try at Oscar while Sebastian Cordero of Ecuador ("Cronicas") and Pavel Giroud of Cuba ("La edad de la peseta") are on their second. 

Only Canada and Argentina have won this award. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Peru have made it to the nomination stage, while Venezuela has been shortlisted once. The six smaller countries (Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Uruguay) are waiting for their first nomination although it likely won't be this year. 

Controversies and Changes:  Brazil, Brazil, Brazil! A political controversy erupted in Brazil when critic Marcus Petrucelli was announced as one of the members of the national Oscar selection committee. Petrucelli had criticized Kleber Mendonça Filho, the director of  this year's Brazilian favorite "Aquarius" as well as Brazil's so-so 2013 submission "Neighbouring Sounds", for his political protests at Cannes against the current interim government. Filho and many other high-profile Brazilian filmmakers cried foul, saying that Petrucelli's participation amounted to political interference. Directors of several films due to compete against "Aquarius'" (including "Neon Bull" and "Don't Call Me Son") withdrew in support of Filho. In the end, Brazil picked the Oscar-friendly "Little Secret" over the more daring "Aquarius". Was the decision politically motivated? Possibly, yes. 

Most Notable Omissions:  Well..."Aquarius" is definitely the most notable omission, though I'm not sure Oscar would have liked it better than the more traditional "Little Secret". Also missing: "The Chosen Ones" (Las Eligidas) from Mexico, Philippe Falardeau's "My Internship in Canada" (which I thought was a shoo-in to represent Canada) and "The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis" from Argentina. 

And since I like to see comedies in the mix, I was disappointed not to see "Las toninas van al Este" (Uruguay) and "La Familia Reyna" (which went to the Goyas for the Dominican Republic) in the race. 

Familiar Faces:  Where to start?! How's this for a Top 10: Gael Garcia Bernal, Gael Garcia Bernal (again!), Vincent Cassel, Diego Cataño ("Narcos"), Alfredo Castro (also twice), Marion Cotillard, Fionnula Flanagan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cecilia Roth and Lea Seydoux! That's a lot of familiar faces, although most of them are representing the big countries- Canada, Chile, Brazil and Mexico though Almodovar muse Roth headlines the obscure Uruguayan submission. 

Last year's race:   Last year, 14 of these countries announced films (though Panama's "Box 25" didn't appear on the final list), including first-time nominee Colombia. This group also had the most high-profile snubs (Argentina, Brazil and Chile). I'm shocked that I only got to see four of these 14 films. "Embrace of the Serpent" was great (though not an easy watch) and the best filmmaking achievement, although I found Guatemala's "Ixcanul" slightly more interesting....."Sand Dollars" from the Dominican Republic was of interest mostly due to its great acting whereas I hated Canada's lame "Felix and Meira" (D). 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2017 Foreign Oscar Predictions- ASIA (18 films)

And here are the 19 films from Asia. Really, almost none of these films have any chance at all to be nominated....though once again SINGAPORE is a potential dark horse.

DISQUALIFIED
19. AFGHANISTAN- "Parting" 

Afghanistan's film industry is always struggling but the produce some absolutely beautiful films that can compete with the world's best. This is why it's disappointing that for the second year in a row, they're not on the official list. Last year, "Utopia" was disqualified after being accepted because it had too much English. And this year, "Parting" (Busan 2016) didn't even make the shortlist. No official reason was given. Some have speculated that this film about Afghans fleeing to Iran was judged to be a majority Iranian film (the director is an Afghan-born refugee who moved to Iran as a child). But the director's brother had a similar co-production accepted to compete for Afghanistan a few years ago. Others have speculated that it didn't have a qualifying run in Afghanistan. I'm not sure what the reason is. If it's the first, I'm angry. If it's the second, hopefully we'll see "Parting" in competition next year (There is precedence for this...."Basain" from Nepal, and "Ghadi" from Lebanon).

BOTTOM OF THE LIST

18. THAILAND- "Karma"
17. PAKISTAN- "Mah-e-Mir"
16. CAMBODIA- "Before the Fall"
15. TAIWAN- "Hang In There, Kids!"
14. BANGLADESH- "The Unnamed"

THAILAND has sent a horror movie about a sinful young monk who confronts some sort of demon/ghost for his transgressions with a cute local girl. And no matter how good a movie about a demon attacking a monk is, it's not going to be nominated for an Oscar. And I think Thailand knows that by now. And they don't care. This film was banned in Thailand and then re-edited and released and turned out to be quite a box-office success.

Neighboring CAMBODIA has selected "Before the Fall", a gonzo action thriller about a love triangle between an American man, a Frenchman and a local Cambodian girl in 1975 right before the genocidal Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Directed by Australian Ian White, this was a last-minute surprise on the Oscar shortlist. It looks like a fun flick made on a low-budget but the over-the-top acting (especially from the French lead who is a model in real life) and staged fighting mean Cambodia is a bit out of its league here. Still, glad to see them here!

PAKISTAN had a weak year and almost decided not to send a film at all. They ended up selecting "Mah-e-Mir", about a modern-day poet who delves into the life of a renowned 18th century poet. Urdu poetry is not likely to interest Western audiences (and poetry is extremely hard to translate well in subtitles) and the film did not enthuse audiences here in Pakistan. Most people here say it's well-filmed but boring and nobody expects it to do well. Still, I'm trying to find a legal copy so I can judge for myself! Nearby BANGLADESH has selected "The Unnamed", a drama centered on the human trafficking trade. In the film, a family awaits the coffin of a Bangladeshi laborer who died in the Gulf. They problem? The family knows their relative is alive and living illegally in Italy....so who is in the coffin? The answer to that question is eventually answered (becoming another family's tragedy) with excellent storytelling and lots of black humor....but production values in Bangladesh are always a challenge.

And there's TAIWAN...."Hang In There Kids" is a saccharine family drama about three boys from poor Aboriginal communities (they speak Atayal with their families but Mandarin Chinese at school) and their misadventures in their village, with their teacher and with their parents. It's a perfectly nice film that makes the Taiwanese countryside look gorgeous but it's a bit lightweight and forgettable to make an impact here.


OUT OF LUCK
13. INDONESIA- "Letters from Prague"
12. CHINA- "Xuan Zang"
11. KAZAKHSTAN- "Amanat"
10. MALAYSIA- "Redha" (Beautiful Pain)
9. HONG KONG- "Port of Call"

INDONESIA has once again chosen a soapy historical drama- "Letters From Prague"- which sheds light on a little-known period in Indonesian history when Indonesians living abroad were required to swear their allegiance to the new revolutionary government when Suharto took over in a coup d'etat....or forced to renounce their citizenship and live in exile forever. It's an important historical moment for Indonesia but the obscure history and usual Indonesian melodramatics and music (by local R+B star Glenn Fredly) probably won't interest Western viewers. The same will probably go for "Amanat" from KAZAKHSTAN. Those few who have seen the film say it's a good one with high production values, but this film which showcases Kazakh struggles against Russian imperialism during the time of the tsars (1830-1840s....lots of battle scenes, warriors and camels), Stalin (1940s) and Khruschev (1960-1970s) will probably also be too confusing and nationalistic for outside viewers to get the whole story.


Historical dramas don't often do well in this category when the historical elements are confusing or unknown to an American audience who rarely know much more than WWII and Vietnam. And so, Indonesia and Kazakhstan are a distinct disadvantage.

CHINA has gone even further back in history (the 7th century A.D.) with "Xuan Zang", the well-known (in China) story of a young monk who journeys 25,000 kilometers on foot to India to obtain ancient Buddhist scriptures. Reviews almost all say the exact same thing- the visuals and cinematography will dazzle you....and the film will put you to sleep. Not a contender. The best of the three Chinese-language films- HONG KONG's dark crime drama "Port of Call" won't do much better. Reviews have been mixed for this dark procedural thriller in which the murder mystery focuses not on "who" but "why". I watched it last night and I actually thought this was quite a daring film, it's backward and forward timelines can be confusing and ultimately the story doesn't 100% come together ....also, some people clearly don't like the film.

MALAYSIA  is looking to become a regular competitor, submitting for the fourth time with "Redha" (aka "Beautiful Pain") a family drama about parents struggling with raising an autistic child. The father in particular is unable to accept his son as he is. This is probably Malaysia's best effort so far (after sending an action movie, a overwrought period piece and a un-PC comedy) but it's not going to be good enough to make it to the next round. Critics say it's a strong but sentimental film highlighting an important topic for Malaysians, but one that may be a bit too basic on autism for the West.



HOPING FOR A MIRACLE
8. PHILIPPINES- "Ma' Rosa"
7. JAPAN- "Nagasaki, Memories of My Son"
6. INDIA- "Interrogation"

This year, the films from Japan and the Philippines have their fans....just not nearly enough of them. Oscar has never been a fan of the gritty, "poverty porn" that forms the mainstay of Filipino arthouse cinema (and which was the subject of one of the Philippines' best-ever Oscar submissions, satire "Woman in the Septic Tank") so the PHILIPPINES entry "Ma' Rosa" is automatically out of the running. This is Brillante Mendoza's first-ever time representing the Philippines but "Ma" is not considered his best work and most who like the film praise Cannes Best Actress winner Jaclyn Rose more than the film itself. This is the story of two impoverished parents arrested for small-time drug dealing, leaving their kids to fend for themselves. It's dark, grim and a difficult film to watch.

JAPAN has chosen the tearjerker "Nagasaki: Memories of My Son", about an elderly mother visited my the ghost of her son, who was killed in the atomic bombings on Nagasaki. I haven't seen "Nagasaki", but despite the important subject matter, reviews have been decidedly mixed. It's a stirring subject featuring some of Japan's best living actors, but critics note the film is heavy on dialogue and has bizarre comic moments that might make sense in Japan but not in the West. It seems this film doesn't translate very well.

Somewhat more likely is the film from INDIA. Once again, India has chosen well. "Interrogation" is a gritty Tamil-language film about a group of Tamil immigrants in Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh who are accused of a brutal crime. Just as it appears they've found a way out, things get worse. Once again, I don't think Oscar is likely to rate the film highly enough to make the next round, but this is a quality film that will proudly represent India.

UNLIKELY BUT POSSIBLE
5. NEPAL- "The Black Hen"
4. KYRGYZSTAN- "A Father's Will"
3. VIETNAM- "Yellow Flowers on Green Grass"

Once upon a time, the foreign Oscar category loved exotic stories from exotic countries, seeing how much lived (especially kids) in a dozen different countrysides. However, the days of "Dersu Uzala", "Children of Heaven" and "Caravan" are largely gone, replaced with more urban and/or historical films (last year's "Theeb" and "Mustang" were notable exceptions).

Vietnam and Nepal have both chosen films in the "cute kids with difficult lives coming-of-age in the beautiful countryside" sub-genre. VIETNAM's "Yellow Flowers on Green Grass" was a big hit at home and has snagged a US distributor (Fortissimo) and bookings in "Kids" sections of international film festivals for its story of kids growing up in rural Vietnam in the 1980s.  Based on a novel, it jumps from story to story and while the countryside look idyllic, these kids run into some pretty tough problems (including one boy who becomes paralyzed). NEPAL's "The Black Hen" may be the best-reviewed Nepali film since Oscar nominee "Caravan" (which was actually directed by a Frenchman), and one of the best-traveled (Venice, Busan, Tokyo etc.) too. The plot concerns two boys from different social classes growing up as unlikely friends during the Maoist Civil War of the 2000s, and their attempt to recapture a lost chicken who matters more than you'd think. The film has been well-received, especially for its visuals.

KYRGYZSTAN is another of those countries that keeps sending good films but has no Oscar nominations to show for it. "A Father's Will" is one of the most obscure films on the list, though it sounds great. A twist on the tale of the prodigal son, "A Father's Will" concerns Azat, who returns to Kyrgyzstan to a not-so-warm welcome after fifteen years living in the United States. It turns out Azat's father (who died in America) borrowed money for the journey to America but never sent any back, and that he also caused his other son (Azat's brother) to be imprisoned before leaving. There's not a single review anywhere online, but if one goes solely by quality, the Kyrgyz have never once sent a bad movie in this category.

DARK HORSES FOR THE LIST
2. SOUTH KOREA- "Age of Shadows"
1. SINGAPORE- "Apprentice"

These two Asian economic powers are still waiting for their first Oscar nominations, even though South Korea has one of the world's most dynamic and popular film industries. Sadly, both of them will likely fall short again this year and although the top-ranked films in Asia, I consider both of them dark horses at best.

SOUTH KOREA has tried everything from arthouse to period pieces to tearjerkers and is now trying its luck with a slick spy thriller. Shot like a Hollywood spy movie, "Age of Shadows" is an exciting movie set during the Japanese colonial era featuring heroic Korean characters defeating villainous Japanese ones. Nationalist overtones aside, this style of film makes for great box-office and the film has gotten good reviews, but ultimately may prove too confusing and too "Korean" to break out here. Korea has failed to be nominated for better films. As for SINGAPORE, it's true nobody is talking about death penalty drama "Apprentice". But this film, which premiered at Cannes 2016, has the potential break out. The story concerns a young Malay Singaporean prison guard on death row who comes under the tutelage of the prison's elderly longtime executioner. Without giving too much way, it eventually transpires that the executioner killed the young guard's father leading to numerous questions about secret intentions. The film has universally strong reviews and though I don't think it will make it, it could surprise.

And here are the statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 23

Number of countries participating this year:  19, if you include AFGHANISTAN who were disqualified.

Number of debuts: Zero.

Number of countries opting out:  Only four....Bhutan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan haven't submitted in years....The last film from any of these countries was "The Road from Elephant Pass" in 2009. 

Already Seen: TWO. "Hang In There Kids!" from TAIWAN and "Port of Call" from HONG KONG. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: KYRGYZSTAN's "A Father's Will" 

Feature Debuts:  SEVEN of the 19 films are feature debuts: Min Bahadur Bham (Nepal), Kanittha Kwanyu (Thailand), Bakyt Mukul and Dastan Zhapar Uulu (Kyrgyzstan),  Tunku Mona Riza (Malaysia), Narymbetov Satybaldy (Kazakhstan) and Ian White (an Australian representing Cambodia) plus the disqualified Navid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan)

Number of Female Directors THREE. Kanittha Kwanyu (Thailand), Laha Mebow (Taiwan) and Tunku Mona Riza (Malaysia). Kwanyu and Riza are the first women ever to represent their countries here. 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 85-year old Yoji Yamada from Japan and (probably) 31-year old Angga Dwimas Sasongko from Indoensia. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Two films are mostly in Mandarin (China and Taiwan) and Malay (Malaysia and Singapore). The other fourteen are in Bengali, Cantonese, Indonesian, Japanese, Kazakh, Khmer, Korean, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Urdu and Vietnamese, plus the disqualified Afghan film in Persian. 

Actually, the films from Cambodia (French and English), Kazakhstan (Russian) and Taiwan (Atayal) are multi-lingual.

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  Zero

Number of comedies: Zero

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist:  Um, how about one? 

Highest profile film:  This is a pretty low-profile group of films! But it's probably "Ma' Rosa" (Philippines) on the film festival circuit and "Age of Shadows" (South Korea) in the international box-office. 

Oscar History: Yoji Yamada has represented Japan five times (tying Akira Kurosawa's record) and was nominated once for "The Twilight Samurai". None of the other directors has been submitted before, unless you count Boo Junfeng whose short film was included in Singapore's omnibus entry "7 Letters", last year. 

Best and Worst Decisions:  Good moves from India (which chose a respected, quality film), Pakistan (which almost decided not to submit a film at all), Singapore, Vietnam, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. 

Once again, Japan and China don't seem to have a handle on what sort of film will do well here....perhaps they don't care. 

Controversies and Changes:  Not much. Some eyebrows were raised when dark comedy "I Am Not Madame Bovary" from China had its release postponed so that it was no longer eligible. It appeared this story of Chinese corruption may have had difficulty with the censors. Afghanistan's disqualification (or whatever happened there) is the biggest controversy from Asia. Even India's selection usually contentious process proceeded quietly. 

Most Notable Omissions:  I was hoping to see "After the Storm" by one of my favorite directors (Hirokazu Koreeda) represent Japan, but the most glaring absence from the list is "The Handmaiden" from South Korea. I was surprised to see "Diamond Island" (Cambodia) left off the list but it may not have premiered at home. And some had hoped that Lav Diaz's two incredibly long shortlisted films, "A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery" (8 hours) and "The Woman Who Left" (4 hours), would represent the Philippines but I think the whole Academy is grateful they weren't. 

Familiar Faces:  The most famous for international audiences is probably Byung-hun Lee, the new Korean "Terminator" who co-stars in "Age of Shadows or Japan's Tadanobu Asano (the "Thor" films, as well as a long resume of infinitely superior, edgy Japanese films) who co-stars in "Nagasaki: Memories of My Son".

Also in the mix this year: pop star/movie star Aaron Kwok stars in "Port of Call", Winston Chao ("The Wedding Banquet") as a King in "Xuan Zang", and the Japanese Meryl Streep, Sayuri Yoshinaga and Kazunari Ninomiya ("Letters From Iwo Jima" co-star with Asano in "Nagasaki: Memories of My Son" 

Last year's race:   All 19 of these countries sent films last year except Indonesia. They failed to get a single spot on the shortlist (and they probably won't this year either). 

I managed to see 10 of them . My favorite was Singapore's "7 Letters" (A-), though I also would also highly recommend the films from Thailand ("How to Win At Checkers", A-), Japan ("100 Yen Love", B+) and China's weird "Go Away Mr. Tumor" (B+), which is kind of a mess of a movie, but ultimately very satisfying. "Court" (India), "Moor" (Pakistan), and "The Throne" (South Korea) were pleasant, average but flawed films. "Talakjung vs. Tulke" (Nepal) definitely had a hard-working cast and crew but was ultimately out of its league in this competition. "The Assassin" (Taiwan) (D) was a visual delight but a disaster in every other respect, especially the screenplay. And "To the Fore" (Hong Kong) is like a bad 80s drama and was ultimately one of the worst films I saw last year. 

Hoping to see "Men Who Saved the World" and "Heavenly Nomadic" before the end of 2016.