Friday, January 10, 2020


So, first of all I only got 4/10.....I'm not terribly upset about that, but I am terribly upset that this is one of the weakest lists I've ever seen. I saw 49 of the 92 Oscar submissions and these are simply not the best of the best. 

I think we have seven films competing for five slots. My predictions are:

1. KOREA- "Parasite"
2. SPAIN- "Pain and Glory"
3. FRANCE- "Les Miserables"

4. POLAND- "Corpus Christi"
5. RUSSIA- "Beanpole"
6. MACEDONIA- "Honeyland"
7. SENEGAL- "Atlantique"

8. ESTONIA- "Truth and Justice"
9. CZECH REPUBLIC- "The Painted Bird"
10. HUNGARY- "Those Who Remained"

Of course it's true that Parasite is one of the two best films of 2019 (along with "Jojo Rabbit"). And of course, it will be nominated and win the Oscar. But what of the rest of the list? 

We have two to three more great films! Les Miserables exceeded all my expectations by presenting a complex look at the war between French police and the residents of a mostly Black and Arab suburb. I was fascinated at how the film skillfully creates complex heroes and villains....but that audiences themselves will disagree who is who. Honeyland is also a real delight! This story of an elderly woman beekeeper living in rural Macedonia is the only film on the list that could rightfully be called "charming". It works on so many levels- as a documentary, a feature, as a character study, as an environmental allegory- and it's definitely a threat for nominations in both Best International Film and Best Documentary (though I fear it may lose both!). And while I wouldn't rank Almodovar's meditation on aging- Pain and Glory- in my Top Ten, there's no dying that it's a well-acted and skillfully made film, and one that resonates internationally because of Almodovar's fearless analysis of the human condition. 

These films belong here. Corpus Christi, while not one of my personal favorites, is also good enough that I'm not terribly upset to see it on the list. 

But that's where things go wrong. I didn't see The Painted Bird so I can't judge that one.....But the rest of the films on the list range from "fine" (Hungary and Russia) to "dull" (Estonia and Senegal). With so many dozens of films to choose from, I find it inexplicable that neither committee recognized any of the LGBT stories- including the genre-bending Tu me manques (with the best ending sequence of the year) and the critical darling And Then We Danced- nor films with original and exceptional filmmaking (Monos), storytelling (The Steed), cinematography (Aga), or that at least were entertaining (Tel Aviv on Fire). 

Enough complaining. We'll see on Monday. 

Sunday, December 15, 2019



With the shortlist coming out tomorrow, here are my final predictions for the 10-film shortlist. This is the first year with ten semifinalists.....The first seven spots will go to the highest-rated films from the Large Committee. The final three will be selected by an "Elite" committee.

I'd just like to make one final plug for the long-shot entry from BOLIVIA.....Months later, I can't get the finale of this brilliant film out of my head, and a spot in the finals would mean so much for the director, for LGBT cinema and for the Bolivian film industry! I know it's probably not going to make it....but it's so deserving. It's probably more likely the Elite Committee will "affirmative action" an African film (e.g. "Atlantique") onto the list even if they don't deserve it.....but I simply don't see that any of the African submissions are good enough this year (I've only seen four out of 10).

In the end, with three very strong LGBT contenders (Sweden, Bolivia and Peru) all unlikely to get votes from the large committee, I think the Elite Committee will probably nudge the most acclaimed of the three- "And Then We Danced" into the finals.

Image result for Tu te manques bolivia

1.  SOUTH KOREA- "Parasite"
2.   SPAIN- "Dolor y Gloria" (Pain and Glory)
3.  GERMANY- "System Crasher"
4.  FRANCE- "Les Misérables"
5.  MONGOLIA- "The Steed"
6.  MACEDONIA- "Honeyland" (Elite Save)
7.   NORWAY- "Out Stealing Horses" 
8.  BRAZIL- "The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao"
9.  COLOMBIA- "Monos" (Elite Save)
10.  SWEDEN- "And Then We Danced" (Elite Save)

11.  BOLIVIA- "Tu me manques" (I Miss You) (Elite)
12.  RUSSIA- "Beanpole" (Elite)
13.  DENMARK- "Queen of Hearts"
14.  ICELAND- "A White White Day" (Large)
15.  CANADA- "Antigone"
16.  SENEGAL- "Atlantique" (Only if Elite Committee is desperate to include an African film)
17.  POLAND- "Corpus Christi"
18.  ALGERIA- "Papicha" (Elite)
19.  PERU- "Retablo" 
20.  UNITED KINGDOM- "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind"

21.   ISRAEL- "Incitement"
22.  IRAN- "Finding Farideh"
23.  ITALY- "The Traitor"
24.  CZECH REPUBLIC- "The Painted Bird" (Only if Elite Committee wants to make a point!)
25.  LUXEMBOURG- "Tel Aviv on Fire"
26.  BULGARIA- "Ága"
27.  ARGENTINA- "La odisea de los Giles"(Heroic Losers)
28.  MEXICO- "La camarista" (The Chambermaid)
29.  HUNGARY- "Those Who Remained"
30.  CAMBODIA- "In the Life of Music"
31.  SLOVAKIA- "Let There Be Light"
32.  AUSTRALIA- "Buoyancy"

I've been lucky to see 20 of the 32 films so I'm in a better place to judge then I usually am.

I've seen many lists predicting "Weathering With You" (Japan), "The Perfect Candidate" (Saudi Arabia), "The Whistlers" (Romania) and "It Must Be Heaven" (Palestine) but I'm pretty sure that none of these have any chance of being on the list tomorrow.....Japanese Anime? Poorly plotted noir comedy? Elia Suleiman? These are not the sort of films that this category honors.....

Friday, December 13, 2019

2019 Oscar submissions- EASTERN EUROPE (22 films)

Finally, here are the 22 contenders from Central and Eastern Europe. The final shortlist will come out on Monday, December 16. I'll publish my final rankings on Sunday morning. 

1.     MACEDONIA- “Honeyland”
2.     RUSSIA- “Beanpole”

These two festival favorites are widely acknowledged to be the two front-runners from Eastern Europe. Grim drama “Beanpole” from RUSSIA won two major awards (Director and FIPRESCI) in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, while charming documentary “Honeyland” from MACEDONIA won three prizes at Sundance. 

“Honeyland” is a documentary that looks like a narrative feature film. The film revolves around Hatidze, a middle-aged woman from Macedonia’s Turkish minority and her even more elderly mother, who are two of the last residents of a dying rural village. Hatidze raises bees and earns her living from selling organic honey in town. This may not sound exciting but don't like the simple plot fool you. When a boorish Turkish family moves into the area, Hatidze generously watches their children, helps them settle in and helps them set up their own bees…but they refuse to follow her advice about how to keep up the delicate local equilibrium intact. The film works on so many levels, and it’s actually difficult to believe that it’s all a real story. It makes you sad, it makes you angry and yet it’s all a delight to watch. I’d consider it one of the front-runners for the Elite Committee.

If “Honeyland” is a gentle walk in the woods, then “Beanpole” is an uphill climb in winter. “Beanpole” is a grim drama about two young, female veterans working as nurses in post-WWII Leningrad (St. Petersburg). It’s a slog to get through but it has some of the best acting in the group and could easily get a shortlist slot like “Paradise” or “Notebook”. And without giving anything away, the film goes in several very unexpected directions. NOTE: The English title is an awkward translation of the Russian dylda, a derogatory name for an ugly giant, which is what everyone calls the extremely tall, unusual looking lead character. 

3.     POLAND- “Corpus Christi”
4.     CZECH REPUBLIC- “The Painted Bird”
5.     SLOVAKIA- “Let There Be Light”

These three dark horses probably won’t grab a shortlist spot, but they are all in with a chance. Let’s look at the Pros and Cons:

In A Few Words: A three-hour film about the journey of a young Jewish boy encountering extreme violence and atrocities while running away from village to village during WWII.
Pros: Kids in peril and WWII are Oscar mainstays.
Cons: Extremely divisive. The depictions of violence, rape and depravity are said to be so brutal as to make the film almost unwatchable. 10% of the audience in Toronto walked out.
Bottom Line: It makes “Beanpole” look like a Sandra Bullock comedy. While it may be considered for a spot from the Elite Committee, it’s so grim that it probably won’t be picked.

In A Few Words: A deeply religious young man is released from juvenile prison and sent to work in a factory on the other side of the country. He cons his way into becoming the new parish priest.
Pros: Critical response has been very positive. The film explores issues of faith, good vs. evil, religion vs. morality, forgiveness etc. from a fresh and original perspective.
Cons: It’s a slow moving and very intellectual film. Those not interested in ethics and faith might be bored.
Bottom Line: On the bubble. Could contend.

In A Few Words: A Slovak man returns from working abroad to find his wife has lost control over his older son who may be involved with violent bullying at school, and a local gang of Neo-Nazis.
Pros: Director Marko Škop is an expert at creating complicated, realistic characters and complex moral dilemmas. Revelations in the second-half transform this family drama into a procedural mystery…...
Cons: ...but the first half is very slow. The film takes its time developing its story and characters before things really start to move. Director Škop was ignored for the far superior “Eva Nova” three years ago.
Bottom Line: Deserving perhaps, but unlikely to stand out in the crowd.

6.     HUNGARY- “Those Who Remained”
7.     BULGARIA- “Aga”
8. LATVIA- "The Mover"
9.     GEORGIA- “Shindisi"

I've only seen the film from BULGARIA which selected "Aga", the Grand Prize winner at Sarajevo 2018. It isn't very "Bulgarian" but it's one of my favorite films on the list. It's the story of an elderly Yakut couple living in a remote area of Siberia where they are the last people of their community to live a traditional life. Reviews have been strong but I've been sad to hear some people describe the film as boring. I think this beautiful film works as an exotic window on Yakut life as well as a universal story of parents and children, as well as the impact of environmental change on traditional communities. I hope they consider it the same way they considered "Kelin". 

I'll see "Those Who Remained" from HUNGARY on Sunday, right before the list of finalists is announced. Originally planned as a TV movie, it's about Holocaust survivors in post-World War II Hungary. I've heard that it's a solid and moving drama, but overall unimpressive and looking very much like a television production. It will probably still do well with the Large Committee, but I can't imagine it making the Top Seven. UPDATE: Having now seen "Those Who Remained", I disagree that it looks like a TV movie...but the style is very theatrical. I felt like I was watching a play. The film deals with the very few remaining family members from two Jewish Hungarian families in the early 1950s.....but also on a rather disturbing subplot involving a 16-year old girl. I think my ranking was accurate. 

I'm not sure if I'll ever get to see "Shindisi", the patriotic war drama from GEORGIA. Based on a true story, it tells tale of the soldiers and civilians in a small border village who vainly attempt to resist Russia's brutal 2008 invasion of northern Georgia. There's very little information about the film online but it's clear this was probably selected mostly to publicize Georgia's political plight. "And Then We Danced" is the real Georgian drama with a chance to be nominated this year. 

I have a big question mark about LATVIA, which has selected a little-known film about the WWII activities of Jānis Lipke, known as the Oskar Schindler of Latvia, a petty smuggler who hid dozens of Jewish Latvians from the Germans. This is a baity plot and trailer looks really good...but nobody is talking about the film, it's won few awards outside Latvia, and even fewer seem to have seen it. A real long shot unless the committee really warms to it. 

10. ROMANIA- "The Whistlers"
11. ESTONIA- “Truth and Justice”
12. BOSNIA- “The Son”
13. SERBIA- “King Petar I”
14. UKRAINE- “Homeward”

All five of these films lack the popular critical acclaim or “buzz” to make it to the next round. I’ve only seen two, including “Truth and Justice”, the sprawling family epic from ESTONIA, which is the most successful film in Estonian history. Based on an acclaimed series of novels, it lovingly recreates Estonian rural traditions and atmosphere but it it less likely to win over non-Estonian audiences. Spanning several decades of history in the life of rival neighbor families led by two strong-willed but flawed patriarchs, it’s all a bit too much soap opera for me.

As for "The Whistlers" (La Gomera) from ROMANIA, the response has been mixed. For me, it was one of the biggest disappointments of the year. It's a comedy-thriller about a corrupt Romanian cop, a coded whistling language from Spain and....well....I'm not entirely sure what else. After thirty minutes, the plot didn't make much sense to me at all. I realized everyone is double-crossing everyone and just gave up. I really wanted to like this one....but I didn't.
From the former Yugoslavia, we have historical war drama “King Petar I” from SERBIA and family drama “The Son” from BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA. Nationalist “King Petar”, about an early 20th century King, has gotten decidedly mixed reviews and was a surprise pick over “Stitches” and “The Load”. Critics praise the production values and war scenes but lament the script and the editing. As is common in Serbia and Croatia, the directors filmed with the intention of making both a two-hour feature film and a multi-episode miniseries for television. The film version is said to be rushed and convoluted by trying to squeeze a lot of history into two hours. Non Serbs will likely be confused. “The Son” is a quiet family drama about a family with two troubled sons, 14 and 18 (both born right after the Yugoslav wars) and the bad influence that the older son has on his younger brother. Reviews have also been mixed-to-positive. Oscar has shown little affection for either historical dramas or family stories from the Balkans.

Lastly, we have the intriguing “Homeward” from UKRAINE about the difficulties faced by a Crimean Tatar father and son to transport the body of their dead son/brother from Kyiv to Russian-occupied Crimea. “Homeward” is an important film but I’ve heard that so much of the film’s story depends on having background knowledge and context about the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the ability to recognize the myriad of regional languages being spoken by the characters. American audiences may not be able to relate.

15. KOSOVO- “Zana"
16. ARMENIA- “Lengthy Night”
17. ALBANIA- “The Delegation”
18. BELARUS- “Debut"

 These four obscure films from four of Europe’s most obscure countries are out of their league. The only one I’ve seen is “Zana” from KOSOVO, a strange little drama with supernatural overtones about a 30-something wife whose family is pressuring her to have a child. The story is told in bits and pieces with dreams and nightmares and flashbacks and faith healers all mixed-in. It’s interesting but all a bit too confusing and unfocused to advance.

From neighboring ALBANIA we have “The Delegation” which I’m really interested in seeing. Most people don’t realize that until the early 1990s, Albania was known as the North Korea of Europe, with virtually zero contact with the outside world. Set in the waning days of Communism when the government knew collapse was imminent, a government official releases a political prisoner from jail to tell a visiting European delegation about how wonderful things are. It sounds great but reviews have been mixed.

     Documentary “Debut” is only the fourth film ever submitted by BELARUS. It follows a group of women serving time for “first offenses” in a women’s prison but, as I’ve mentioned before, other documentaries on the list are far more likely to break through.

I can’t find a single online review for “Lengthy Night”, the little-seen drama from ARMENIA that dominated the 2018 National Film Awards. Similar to the Cambodian and Montenegrin nominees, it tells three stories set in three different historical periods….in this case, the 11th century, the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the 2000s after regaining national independence. This is likely too obscure to advance but I’m happy Armenia is competing and this is another film I am excited to see.

19. SLOVENIA- “History of Love”
20.  MONTENEGRO- “Neverending Past”
21.  CROATIA- “Mali”
22. LITHUANIA- “Bridges of Time”

Oh dear….LITHUANIA. I think I’m ranking them dead last for the third year in a row. “Bridges of Time” is only 78-minutes long and I needed repeated pauses to get through it. It’s definitely the worst film of the 44 films I’ve seen. The directors of have taken obscure documentaries from the Baltic republics made during the Soviet era and re-visited the subjects, locations and directors decades later. There’s virtually no intros or contexts….just a look at the before and after. It’s like watching a stranger’s home movies and then meeting them in person. It’s excruciating.

I’ve also seen the underdogs from CROATIA and SLOVENIA. “Mali” is about an ex-con trying to keep custody away from his in-laws, when his wife falls deathly ill. It’s an interesting idea but most of the film consists of Dad’s drunken activities with his friends, video games and lot of macho local humor.  There are some jarring moments but it’s not an Oscar-calibre film and it’s very local. Slovenia chose the arthouse “History of Love”, a slow-moving mystery about a teenage girl with a hearing aid who begins stalking a foreign symphony conductor. “History of Love” could possibly contend for an Oscar for Best Sound for its creative, innovative way of showing how the mostly deaf lead character sees the world. But when you’re noticing the Sound, you’re likely really bored with the plot, which I was.

Last is MONTENEGRO and it’s triptych drama “Neverending Past”, about the relationships between fathers and sons in three different historical eras. There’s virtually no information about it online and it has the lowest score (tied with Turkey) of any film on IMDB. Not promising signs….

Now the statistics:

Number of countries who have participated in the past
: 24

Number of countries participating this year:  22

Number of debuts: Zero. There are no countries left.

Number of countries opting out:  Just two. Azerbaijan and Moldova seem to have given up. Azerbaijan has now been absent four of the past five years, while Moldova has been gone five out of five. I expected "End of Season" would represent Azerbaijan. 

Number I predicted correctly: 8- Albania, Armenia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine, and I came super-close with Poland.

Already Seen: 12. I was waiting until I could see half of the 22 films before publishing this blog entry. I’ve seen the films from Macedonia (A), Bulgaria (A-), Slovakia (A-), Poland (B+), Hungary (B), Russia (B), Kosovo (B), Estonia (B), Romania (C), Croatia (C), Slovenia (C) and Lithuania (F). 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: Political satire “The Delegation”, from Albania.

Number of Female Directors:  6 of the 24 directors and co-directors (25%) are female. Anastasiya Miroshnichenko (Belarus), Ines Tanović (Bosnia), Kristine Briede (Lithuania), Antoneta Kastrati (Kosovo), Tamara Kotevska (Macedonia) and Sonja Prosenc (Slovenia).

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 62-year old Dito Tsintsadze (Georgia) is the oldest. Tamara Kotevska (Macedonia) and Nariman Aliev (Ukraine) are both just 26.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  We have four in the Serbo-Croatian languages, plus two each in Albanian and Russian, and one each in Armenian, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Turkish and, for the first time ever, Yakut (Bulgaria) and an artificial language called Interslavic (Czech Republic). We also have a mishmash of languages in the documentary from Lithuania (all three Baltic languages plus Russian and some Hebrew) and the drama from Ukraine (Crimean Tatar, Ukrainian and Russian).

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

Buzziest film:  Probably Russia’s “Beanpole”.

Oscar History: Nearly half the directors have some Oscar experience.

Albanian crybaby Bujar Alimani is here for the third time (he was only selected twice, but in 2011 he asked AMPAS to disqualify “The Forgiveness of Blood”, Albania’s best chance ever for an Oscar nomination, on a technicality so that his film could go instead). And on their second try: Antonio Nuic (Croatia 2009; “Donkey”), Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania 2009; “Police Adjective”), Sonja Prosenc (Slovenia 2015; “The Tree”), Marko Skop (Slovakia 2016; “Eva Nova”), Audrius Stonys (Lithuania 2012; “Ramin”), Ines Tanovic (Bosnia 2015; “Our Everyday Life”) and Dito Tsintsadze (Georgia 2008; “Mediator”). 

But the only Eastern European to actually have an Oscar contender is Estonia’s Tanel Toom who got an Oscar nomination for his Short Film “The Confession” in 2011 and who won a Student Academy Award in 2010 for the same film.

Controversies and Changes: None that I can think of. Some grumbled that gay dance drama “And Then We Danced” was not considered to represent conservative Georgia but the truth is that it hadn’t premiered yet in Georgia, so it wasn’t eligible.

Most Notable Omissions: Probably the most prominent omissions from Eastern Europe were "Consequences" from Slovenia, “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija” from Macedonia, “Anna’s War” from Russia and “Irina” from Bulgaria. However, all of these countries ended up making smart choices (except Slovenia).  

Also missing: “Aga’s House” (Kosovo), "Consequences" (Slovenia), “End of Season” (Azerbaijan), “The Load” (Serbia), “Old-Timers” (Czech Republic), “Oleg” (Latvia), “Stitches” (Serbia), “Toman” (Czech Republic) and “Volcano” (Ukraine)

Familiar Faces: Western actors Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands and Stellan Skarsgard co-star in “The Painted Bird” (Czech Republic). Though not exceptionally “world-famous”, you may also recognize the faces of Vlad Ivanov (Romania), Lazar Ristovski (the Serbian star of the films from both Serbia and Montenegro) and Kristoffer Joner (the Norwegian star of the Slovene submission).

Last year's race:  I saw 14 of the 21 Eastern European submissions. My favorite was the scrappy low-budget dramedy “Crystal Swan” (Belarus; A), followed by Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Kosovo, Macedonia and Ukraine (all B+), Slovenia, Romania, Croatia (all B), Georgia (C), Czech Republic (D) and Lithuania (D-).

Next: Final Rankings and Shortlist Predictions