Tuesday, July 7, 2015

OSCAR SUBMISSION PREDICTIONS 2015-2016, AFGHANISTAN-CHILE

It's that time of year again! Here are my predictions for the Oscar Foreign Film award for 2016. Over the next few months, all the countries of the world will be invited to send their Best Film of the year to the Oscars. Every country- big or small- gets to enter just one film. Last year, a record 83 countries entered. This year's deadline is October 1st but one country (Hungary) has already announced. 

Over July and August, I'll be making predictions in five equal installments- 
Part 1- Afghanistan to Chile
Part 2- China to Guatemala
Part 3- Hong Kong to Macedonia
Part 4- Malaysia to Romania
Part 5- Russia to Vietnam

Over the years, a total of 111 countries have entered the race, . Many like Belarus or Chad are unlikely to send a film this year, but this blog considered them all as equals, Olympic-style. Let the games begin!

1. AFGHANISTAN- "Mina Walking" Afghanistan has become a surprising source of quality films about women. Their past four submissions were brave films about the impact that Afghanistan’s wars and traditional patriarchal culture have on the lives of young women, as was Golden Globe Winner “Osama” in 2003. That trend looks likely to continue as Afghanistan’s two strongest choices are also about the plight of Afghan women. The front-runner is “Mina Walking” which was screened in the Youth Film section of the Berlin Film Festival. Directed by a Canadian of Afghan heritage, it’s the story of a 12-year old girl who supports her abusive male relatives by working and taking care of the house. The only other recent Afghan film I know of is “Utopia”, featuring three seemingly unconnected stories revolving around an Afghan woman who travels abroad for fertility treatment. Shot in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, India and the UK, it co-stars Iranian star Homayoun Ershadi, who recently co-starred in “Most Wanted Man” with Willem Dafoe. Dark horse: Siddiq Barmak is said to be working on a new film called “Eclipse”. I don’t think that it will premiere in time so “Mina” should win this fairly easily.

2. ALBANIA- "Bota" Albania has a rather confusing race this year. Last year, Albania was the only major European country not to send a film, despite two registered candidates (“Amsterdam Express”, and “Ada”) who answered an open call for submissions. If it’s released by September 30,  I'd say “Distant Angels” is a sure thing.  First, it’s directed by one of the country’s greatest modern directors (Gjergj Xhuvani; selected to represent Albania in 2001 and 2010) and it stars talented heartthrob Nik Xhelilaj (who starred in their 2008 and 2009 submissions). It also features a baity nationalist plot (the war in neighboring Kosovo). They'd need to make sure Kosovo doesn’t nominate it first (like when Germany pipped Austria to select their expected candidate, “The White Ribbon”). However, the film still appears to be in post-production. If it does NOT premiere in time, the Albanians will have a dilemma. The most widely-seen Albanian film is “Sworn Virgin”, but that film is a majority Italian production with an Italian director. Albania was embarrassingly forced to withdraw “The Forgiveness of Blood” (with an American director) after local director Bujar Alimani whined about the selection of a foreigner. Alimani has a new film at Karlovy Vary (“Chromium”) which could contend, but their most likely alternate is “Bota”, a dramedy about a number of quirky characters at a café, which has played quietly at a number of festivals. It will all come down to “Angels” release date. 

3. ALGERIA- "Crépuscule des ombres" Algeria will almost certainly send “Crépuscule des ombres” by 81-year old Palme d’Or winner Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, who came out of retirement to make his latest film. Lakhdar-Hamina’s films were submitted by Algeria three times in the 70s and 80s, but he hasn’t made a film in nearly thirty years. The film was screened in Algeria in November and was reportedly scheduled for a spring release in local cinemas. Set against the backdrop of the Algerian War for independence (yet another reason for Algeria to choose it), it’s the story of three mena brutal French army officer, a deserting French soldier and an Algerian POW. While it’s certainly true I’ve heard better things about “The Man From Oran” (L’Oranais) by Lyes Salem (who repped Algeria in 2008), the movie was almost banned in Algeria for its controversial take on the country’s history and the authority of its long-serving leaders (Algeria was one of the few Arab countries whose long-serving ruler avoided an Arab Spring). In a weaker year, “Fadhma N'Soumer” (2nd Prize at FESPACO), a historical biopic about a rare, female resistance leader who fought against French colonial rule, might be chosen, but Lakhdar-Hamina’s pedigree should be enough to push her into second place. Submitting “The Man from Oran” or childhood village drama “Chronicles of My Village” would be a shock. 

4. ARGENTINA- TBD

5. ARMENIA- "Moskvich, My Love" Armenia canceled their National Film Awards this year (the Hayaks), saying that they would consider two years worth of films at next year’s ceremony. They’ve only submitted two films in the past ten years so it's iffy whether they will enter this year. The most prominent Armenian production this year is “1915”, an English-language US co-production looking at the 1915 genocide, which has gotten decidedly mixed reviews. If they submit anything, it’s almost certain to be “Moskvich, My Love”, a sweet-looking drama about an elderly village couple who struggle to make ends meet, but who dream of buying the car they were promised (but never received) during Soviet times. Oscar loves old people!! It's also the only domestic feature playing at the Golden Apricot Film Festival. Also possible: “Anahit”, a beautiful, animated fairy tale (using hand-drawn and 3D animation) that was a big hit with audiences and critics during the Christmas holidays. 

6. AUSTRALIA- "The Fish in Me" Australia has managed to send quality films made by Australian directors in German, Lao and the indigenous Yol-Ngu language the past three years. This year, they may struggle to find something that's eligible. The front-runner should be “Salt Bridge”, a Hindi-language film about the experience of the first Indian immigrants to Canberra. Its directed by Indian-born, Canberra-based Abhijit Deonath but, as of July, it appears it is st. They could consider sending “The Fish in Me”, a quirky Turkish film co-produced by Australia about a marine biologist with mental and physical problems (bipolar disorder and a "fin"-like hand). It’s supposed to be funny and well-done. They could also go for acclaimed 2013 documentary “Ukraine is Not a Brothel” following topless female protest group “Femen” over the course of 14 months. It won the 2015 Australian Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary and is in Ukrainian and Russian. I believe it has only screened at festivals, but if it got a regular run in Australian cinemas, they could consider it. I’ll pencil in “Fish” as my prediction, but they may bow out gracefully this year. I don’t think there are any film in Aboriginal languages.

7. AUSTRIA- "Amour Fou" Austria had a very strong 2014 at international film festivals but three of their biggest festival entries didn’t open in Austria until this eligibility year, namely “Amour Fou” (Cannes '14), “Macondo” (Berlinale '14) and “Goodnight Mommy” (Venice '14). This year the Austrians have been fairly invisible at major festivals although hedonistic lesbian bondage drama “The Last Summer of the Rich” did play at Berlinale 2015. I’m feeling  fairly confident Austria will select Jessica Hausner’s “Amour Fou” from last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Though Austria tends to eschew costume dramas, “Fou” has built quite a nice amount of buzz and the film's combination of humor, melodrama and pageantry could appeal to the American Academy. "Fou" is a black comedy-cum- costume drama about a young poet who tries to entice his beautiful cousin into a romantic suicide pact. It lost most of the 2015 Austrian Film Awards to last year’s Oscar submission “The Dark Valley”.  Also in contention are two modern dramas (which Austria tends to prefer), namely “Macondo”, about a Chechen refugee child trying to adjust to Austrian life, and “Gruber Geht”, about a family man who discovers he has cancer. Rounding out the Top Five are “Good Night Mommy” (Venice), a horror-thriller about two twins who believe a woman is impersonating their mother and “Those Who Fall Have Wings (Karlovy Vary 2015), about a number of diverse characters dealing with grief. Unlikely: road dramedy “Bad Luck”, horror-comedy “Therapy for a Vampire”, coming-of-age drama “Beautiful Girl”, tragicomedy “3 Eggs in a Glass”, and well-reviewed action-comedy “Life Eternal”, which might have been considered if it was not a sequel.  I’m feeling pretty confident for “Amour Fou”. 

8. AZERBAIJAN- "Black January" Azerbaijan selected a film I had never heard of last year; the obscure “Nabat” has gone on to represent Azerbaijan at festivals in the Middle East and elsewhere. This year, the world’s most obscure film industry has three possibilities. I predict they send “Black January”, a dramatization of a crackdown by Soviet forces in 1990 that led to a resurgence of sentiment for national independence. The country unexpectedly won independence the following year. "January" is patriotic and has been well-received at home. “Down the River” represented Azerbaijan at Karlovy Vary in 2014. It's about a rowing coach wracked with guilt when his son disappears the day after he expelled him from the school’s rowing team. It premiered in Azerbaijani cinemas in December 2014.  Although it hasn’t premiered yet, Ilgar Safat’s psychological thriller “Inner City” could challenge, if it’s good, or it may contend next year. Safat was selected in 2010. I predict “January”, with “Down the River” a distant second place.

9. BANGLADESH- "Shongram" Bangladesh has been rather quiet on the film scene lately. More films are being produced but most of them are strictly for domestic consumption. Last year they chose a film that I had never heard of and wasn’t on IMDB (yet). This year, the Bangladeshis have had two films screening quietly on the film festival circuit, namely “Under Construction” (Seattle) and “Jalal’s Story” (Fajr, Busan). “Under Construction”’s controversial female director was maligned at home for making a movie in 2009 about a romance that develops between a Bangladeshi woman and an enemy Pakistani soldier during the war for independence. The movie was quickly pulled from cinemas and she will probably never be forgiven for that. The arty “Jalal” is a possibility, as it sadly chronicles the path of an orphan boy’s life from foundling baby to young gangster. Two other potential contenders are “The Cart” (a.k.a. Ghaariwala), about the lives of two impoverished young brothers living with their sick single mother, who try to build a car, and “Shongram”, about a foreign correspondent (Asia Argento) interviewing a Bangladeshi war veteran on his deathbed about his experiences during the war (which are shown in flashbacks). My guess is the partriotic “Shongram”, though “Jalal” and “The Cart” are potential spoilers.

10. BELARUS- "Bela Rossi: The Return" Belarus is the only country in Europe that is completely inactive at the Oscars. The only other European countries that failed to send films last year were Albania (who last sent a film in 2013), Armenia and Greenland (which each last sent in 2012). Belarus last sent a film in 1996. I’m not sure why, as they do have a small film industry (certainly bigger than Greenland, Montenegro or Moldova) but their films are not made for the market outside the CIS. Their most likely candidate this year is “Bela Rossi: The Return” ( Белые Росы; a play on words with the name of the country), a new comedy-drama about a city dweller who decides to start a fresh new life in the countryside. When he gets to his new home, he releases he’ll need to evict some of the villagers to make his dream home a reality. It’s some sort of sequel or remake of a popular Soviet film from the 1980s. There’s also thriller “Encounter”. 


11. BELGIUM- "The Brand New Testament" Belgium always makes things difficult since their French (Walloon) and Dutch (Flemish) film Boards think they are from separate countries. A few years ago, they even set up separate "National" Film Awards for the two halves of the country. However, they are not separate countries, and each year they must get together and choose a single film. Belgium does try to alternate sending films from the two regions although, contrary to popular belief, there is no rule that they must do so (i.e. from 2000-2004, they selected four Dutch films and one French one). From French-speaking Wallonia, they’d probably select “The Brand New Testament”, a breezy comedy about the daughter of God coming down to Earth to correct a slew of misunderstandings about Christianity, due to the inaction of her lazy father (God) who lives in Brussels. It stars Catherine Deneuve, Yolande Moreau and Benoit Poelvoorde as God. Director Jaco von Dormael appeared in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes 2015 (one of the only Belgian films competing at a major festival this year) and represented Belgium twice in the past  (for “Toto the Hero” and “The Eighth Day”, with both reportedly coming close to a nomination ). However, they did choose a French film last year, so it’s really the turn of the Flemish. Unfortunately, most of the Flemish front-runners won’t arrive until after September 30, including two new films by Belgian Oscar nominees- “Ay Ramon” (Stijn Coninx) and “Belgica” (Felix van Groeningen), as well as crime drama “The Ardennes” and  time-travel drama “Sum of Histories” . So, it’s difficult to see what the Flemish side could send- perhaps gritty indie “Image”, about a reporter researching the Muslim Arab community or tragicomedy “Paradise Trips”, about a bus driver who has a life-changing experience taking a group of partygoers to a music festival in Croatia. “Cub”, an odd slasher film featuring children has gotten good reviews, but horror (about killing children!) is unlikely to appeal, and musical-comedy “Belgian Rhapsody” hasn’t gotten the best reviews. None of those seem particularly likely to me. Alternates from the French-Walloon side include “Alleluia”, about a woman accompanying her serial killer boyfriend for thrills, “L’annee prochaine”, a coming-of-age drama about two best friends who head to the big city, and buddy comedy “I’m Dead But I’ve Got Friends”. In an extremely weak year for Belgium, I think Catherine Deneuve should get “Brand New Testament” to Hollywood with “Paradise Trips” the runner-up. Quite a weak year for les belges, though next year looks incredibly strong. 

12. BHUTAN- "Kushuthara: A Pattern of Love" Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom, entered the Oscar race once in 1999 with football comedy “The Cup”. They could enter a second time with “Kushuthara: A Pattern of Love”. I predicted this film last year, but it did not end up premiering in Bhutanese cinemas until February 2015. Made by Bhutan’s first female director, it prominently incorporates Bhutanese arts and culture in the story of a woman who falls in love with a foreigner who then leaves the country. I’m picking it in large part because I know the film has already been subtitled for a hoped-for international release. It won three minor awards at the local National Film Awards, losing the big ones to Best Picture winner “Drimey Kunden”, a traditional opera co-produced with the Tibetan community-in-exile. Dark horse: Australian co-production “Arrows of the Thunder Dragon”, a village tale made by an Australian director in Bhutan ((“The Cup” was also partly funded by Australia)

13. BOLIVIA- "Juana Azurduy" Bolivia returned to the Oscar race after a five-year absence last year, and they have about a dozen releases scheduled for 2015. The most likely choice seems to be “Juana Azurduy”, the patriotic biopic of a 19th century female guerrilla and army commander who fought against the Spanish for Bolivian independence. 78-year old director Jorge Sanjines is a Bolivian film icon and the film makes a strong statement in line with Bolivia’s current anti-colonial/anti-imperialist political ideology. “Juana” faces strong competition from two other movies about major events in Bolivian history, namely “Boqueron” (the Chaco War) and “Cuando los hombres quedan solos” (about the 1980s military dictatorship), whose director sadly passed away during production. All three have a strong shot and it may come down to who’s willing to fill out the paperwork. Dark horses: gothic vampire drama “Olalla” and “Norte Estrecho”, about the travails of Bolivian women working illegally in the United States, make this a particularly strong year for the bolivianos

14. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "Our Everyday Story" Bosnia became the seventh (and final) former Yugoslavian republic to join European Film Promotion a few weeks ago, which should integrate them more into the European film world. This year's Oscar race seems to be between “Our Everyday Story”, a drama about a “typical” Bosnian family going through a series of modern-day crises, and “Hundred”, a dramedy set in Tito’s Yugoslavia circa 1955. “Everyday Story” co-stars Emir Hadzihafizbegovic as the family patriarch. He frequently stars in Bosnia’s submissions, so that’s my choice, with “Hundred”, about a miner plucked from obscurity to serve as a Socialist national symbol, as the runner-up. Somewhat less likely: father-son drama “Racket” and Bosnia’s first animated feature, “Birds Like Us”.  None of them have premiered yet, but I expect all four to be screened at this year's Sarajevo Film Festival. The line-up should be announced later this month and perhaps one film will make a better impression than the others…I think “Dew” (aka Rosa), about a Colombian student in Bosnia, will have too much English to qualify. 

15. BRAZIL- "The Second Mother" Brazil, the largest country in Latin America, was nominated a remarkable three times in four years in the 1990s (1995-1998) but hasn’t been nominated since. That of course includes a snub for “City of God”, though ironically that film got four Oscar nominations in mainstream categories. This year, one Brazilian film has risen head and shoulders above the rest and that is “The Second Mother”.  Awarded at Berlinale (Audience Award, Panorama) and Sundance (Jury Prize, Best Actresses), it’s the story of a live-in maid working for a rich family in Sao Paulo, whose estranged teenaged daughter moves in and proceeded to violate all the rules of her employer’s house. Variety calls it a savvy, socially conscious crowdpleaser that occupies a rare middle ground between genteel and intellectual world cinema”. With excellent reviews praising the filmmaking and its accessibility, it has a real chance at appealing to AMPAS. I think Brazil will select it. Brazil has a few other candidates, though none seem to be as strong as “Second Mother”. They include “Blue Blood”, a surreal, visually interesting but lackluster drama about a circus performer that swept the awards at the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival, “Casa Grande”, another class drama, about a wealthy young boy growing up amidst his family’s spiraling economic problems, “Farewell”, about a 92-year old man who decides he’s ready to die, “Metanoia”, about a mother searching for her missing child, and “Tim Maia”, the biopic of a famed singer whose died in poverty. Lastly, there’s comedian-turned-filmmaker Selton Mello’s new film “A Movie Life”, starring French actor Vincent Cassel and based on an Antonio Skarmeta novel (he wrote “Il Postino”), about an educated young man who returns to his hometown after college, seeking to make a difference in his community. It has no release date but could be a last-minute threat. But for now “Mother” is safe, with “Casa Grande” and “Farewell” coming closest.

16. BULGARIA- "The Judgement" Bulgaria has a tough two-way race this year between Stephen Komandarev’s “The Judgement” and Kristina Grozeva’s “The Lesson”. Both have dominated the past year in Bulgarian cinema awards (though not necessarily the box-office). Komandarev made it to the Oscar shortlist for the first time in Bulgarian history six years ago. “The Judgement” is a father-son drama about a widower who gets involved with trafficking illegal immigrants between Turkey and EU Bulgaria when he falls on hard times. I predicted it last year but it didn't premiere in Bulgarian cinemas until October 2014. Before that, it had played the film festival circuit internationally, and won Best Bulgarian Film at the 2014 Golden Rose Awards. In 2015, the dominant Bulgarian film has clearly been “The Lesson” which dominated the Sofia International Film Festival for its story of a scrupulously honest woman teacher faced with a moral dilemma when her family falls on hard times. There’s clearly a lot of moral dilemmas and hard times in Bulgaria these days! This is a tough one to call. Komandarev deserves credit for getting Hollywood’s attention six years ago, but “The Lesson” has gotten slightly better reviews. The cliquey Bulgarian Academy seems more likely to choose “The Judgement”. Despite good reviews, “The Petrov File” (about an actor who learns after Communism that his mentor betrayed him to the secret police) and the dreamlike “Buffer Zone” (by a rather famous director) likely won’t even be considered in such a competitive race. Iglika Triffonova’s “False Witness” should contend next year.

17. BURKINA FASO- "Eye of the Storm" Burkina Faso had a chaotic coup d’etat in 2014, overthrowing President Blaise Campaore, who ruled the country for 27 years. Many thought that the country's bi-annual FESPACO African Film Festival would be canceled due to internal chaos. However, the world’s most respected African Film Festival went ahead on schedule, featuring two local Burkinabe films in competition- “Eye of the Storm” (L’oeil du cyclone) and “Cellule 512”. Although Burkina Faso hasn’t competed at the Oscars since 1989, it is possible the new government will send "Eye of the Storm”, a gritty film about a former child soldier (now adult) named Hitler Mussolini. It won Third Prize at the FESPACO festival, the best placing of any film from sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Best Actor and Best Actress. “Cellule 512”, about a woman imprisoned for accidentally hitting a reckless young man with her car, won two minor awards.

18. CAMBODIA- "The Last Reel" Cambodia got a shock Oscar nomination for Rithy Panh documentary “The Missing Picture” in 2013, outdoing its Southeast Asian neighbors (Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand) who have been trying to get a nomination for years. They failed to send a film last year, but they have a contentious two-way race this year. Last year, I predicted the Cambodians would send “The Last Reel” (Tokyo), a drama about a rebellious young woman who discovers her mother was a former film star who hid her past to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide. Actress Dy Saveth (who plays the mother) did much the same thing in real life. "Reel" did not end up premiering in Cambodia until late 2014 so it's eligible this year. Young female director Kulikar Sotho faces stiff competition from Rithy Panh himself- Cambodia’s leading international director and sole Oscar nominee. The France-based Panh has a new documentary, “France is Our Country”, an unconventional French-language compilation of archive footage constituting a critique of colonialism. Will the Cambodian Oscar committee choose an authentically Cambodian film, or a new film by their most respected director? Against the odds, I think “The Last Reel” will prevail as Panh’s documentary is not really a Cambodian film.  

19. CAMEROON- "Turbulences" Cameroon was the first country to send a film directed by a Black African director to the Oscars. That was Daniel Kamwa, way back in 1980. Competing against eventual winner “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears” and some of the greatest auteur directors of the time (including Francois Tuffault, Istvan Szabo and Akira Kurosawa), Kamwa failed to be nominated. 35 years later, the 72-year old Kamwa has directed what is being billed as Africa’s first-ever 3D animated film, “Turbulences”, the allegorical story of a hunter seeking to leave his forest home. Unfortunately, Cameroon no longer has any functioning cinemas, although they do have a small number of mobile cinemas (which have been used to meet screening requirements in Iraq) and foreign cultural centers which screen movies (which were used to qualify Saudi Arabia’s “Wadjda”). I can confirm “Turbulences” did screen in Cameroon, though it likely didn't meet AMPAS screening requirements. However, it would be nice to see them back.

20. CANADA- “Félix et Meira” As usual, Canada has no shortage of foreign-language candidates, mostly in French but also in other languages due to Canada’s multi-cultural communities. I think the most likely candidate is the multi-lingual “Félix et Meira” (in French, Yiddish and English), about the odd romance that blossoms between a  40-something bachelor and a married, Hasidic Jewish woman in modern-day Montreal. It won Best Canadian Film at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival (a strong sign of precursor support) and has quietly garnered strong reviews throughout the year. Canada knows well that Jewish-themed films play well at the Academy, so that may also help. However, “Felix & Meira” don’t have an easy road to Hollywood and several other films will be hoping to stand in their way. Its main challenger would appear to be “Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre“ (Guibord's Going to War) but that film has one major problem. Directed by Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”), “Guibord” would certainly be the most likely candidate to knock “Felix & Meira” off their pedestal. A political drama, it follows an independent Canadian MP who holds the deciding vote on whether the country sends troops to a controversial war. He opposes the war, but is offered a political deal that will offer major benefits to his long-suffering constituents. It sounds great but the problem is that “Guibord” is scheduled to open two days too late on October 2nd. Canada sometimes does an Oscar qualifying run if they feel like it (the Oscar candidates status also helps promote the brand-new film) and that could potentially spell bad news for “Felix & Meira”. Rounding out the Top Five choices are “Chorus”, about a long-separated couple reunited after the body of their missing child is discovered, “The Passion of Augustine” (Lea Pool), about a group of nuns who offer women a musical education, and “In Her Place”, a Korean-language drama about a rural mother and daughter approached by a city woman with a delicate proposition.  We may see some more interesting entries at Toronto although most of the buzz appears to be for English-language titles, including Deepa Mehta’s “Beeba Boys”.  Dark horses from Canada could also include “Corbo” (Berlin), about a young terrorist from the Quebecois independence movement, “Love in the Time of Civil War” (Sundance), about street hustlers in Montreal, “The Wolves”, about a city woman who visits a remote island community for unknown reasons, and “Le dep” (Karlovy Vary), a thriller about a young indigenous Innu woman who is the victim of a convenience store robbery. 

21. CHAD has submitted films to the Oscars twice and the country has been using some of their newly discovered oil money to promote its fledgling film industry. They hosted their first-ever film festival (the Toumai Film Festival) over three days in October 2014, and the country is said to be proud of Cannes Jury Prize winner “A Screaming Man” as well as the low-budget “Mariam” which won some local African awards. The country's most famous director- Mahamat-Saleh Haroun- has a new documentary feature in production, but it won’t be finished until 2016 at the earliest. There were reportedly some local Chadian films shown at the inaugural Toumai Film Festival in N’Djamena, but they were probably shorts and I can’t find a list anywhere. They’ll surely sit this year out but could be back next year.


22. CHILE- "El club" Chile's two previous Oscar nominees both have new films this year and they will likely be duking it out to represent Chile in 2015. The front-runner is certainly Pablo Larraín (nominated for “No”) and his latest film “The Club”, about a retreat for disgraced priests and nuns under investigation for a variety of crimes, including child abuse. It won the Jury Prize at Berlinale 2015, already has a U.S. distributor and will likely represent Chile. However, you should never count out two-time Oscar nominee Miguel Littin who has the political “Allende en su laberinto”, about the last seven hours in the life of martyred President Allende. While in political exile, the Chilean Littin was nominated for two Foreign Oscars, first representing Mexico and then Nicaragua. “Allende” hasn’t been as warmly received as “The Club”, but Chile did controversially choose a political film by Littin over the acclaimed “The Maid” in 2009. Other options include yet another film about the victims of the Catholic Church- “El bosque de Karadima”, which focuses on the adult victims of a powerful pedophile priest- and “La memoria del agua” about a romance tested by grief, directed by two-time Chilean representative Matias Bize, who calls "Agua" his best film. Unlikely: documentary “The Pearl Button”, about the cultural genocide of Chile’s indigenous people during the military dictatorship, and “Aurora”, about a woman trying to do a good deed by burying the body of an abandoned baby. Films like “A Horse Called Elephant”, “The Oak’s Shadow” and “You’ll Never Be Alone” probably won’t premiere in time. This is “The Club”’s to lose. I’m confident Chile will send it and it may even take Larrain to the shortlist a second time.

POSSIBLE DEBUTS: BAHRAIN could debut with “The Sleeping Tree”, the first Bahraini feature at a major film festival in years (Dubai 2014). It’s an abstract tale about a Bahraini family struggling to raise a daughter with cerebral palsy. Although the story sounds straightforward, it’s said to be confusing and weird, with the Hollywood Reporter calling it “poetically inclined but ultimately incomprehensible”. BURMA’s biggest film of the year- “The Monk” (Karlovy Vary, Busan 2014) got a special premiere screening at a small local film festival in Rangoon on September 27th, 2014, but it seems the director wasn’t able to get a cinematic release. “Be Deserving of a Successor” has repped the country at a few ASEAN film festivals but I know nothing about it.


Next: CHINA to GUATEMALA

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Final Prediction- Another surprise for Argentina and their "Wild Tales"

I'm writing this post on Day 11 of a Micronesian holiday, so there's not much Oscar buzz here.

This is definitely the closest race in years. Its also the first time in history with ZERO Western European nominees (Netherlands and Sweden came closest). Regretfully, I've only seen two of the five nominees- "Ida" and "Timbuktu" making predicting the winner even harder than usual.

First of all, I think ESTONIA's "Tangerines" has run out of steam. Despite warm reviews, they're a bit weaker than the other four AND they will be hurt by the new rule that you don't have to prove you've seen all five films. With such a close race, this will be the least-seen film (though Voters will get a screener copy) and id say they're out.

So which of the rest will it be? Let's take a quick look:

The Crowdpleaser Choice: "Wild Tales" (Argentina) hopes to follow in the footsteps of "Departures". The revenge-themed black comedy has gotten universally great reviews but some may see it as too lightweight. It will benefit from the "all voters voting" policy.

The Exotic Choice: "Timbuktu" (Mauritania) hopes to follow in the footsteps of "Tsotsi". "Timbuktu", about the 2010 Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the ancient city, is the first film directed by a Black African director (though Mauritania-born Sissako is a French citizen) to make the finals. It's exotic, it's relevant, it's universally relatable and probably deserves to win (it's miles better than "Ida").

The Boring Choice: Forgettable b&W "Ida" (Poland) hopes to follow forgettable Oscar winner "The Counterfeiters". She's the front-runner for so many reasons. It's won  the majority of precursors (except the most important one), it has a post-WWII theme (though the war has recently lost favor in this category)  and box-office is best in show. Most importantly, it's the most widely seen of the Five.

The Intellectual Choice: Golden Globe winner "Leviathan" (Russia) hopes to follow "No Man's Land" and "A Separation". It was the shock winner against "Ida" at the Globes, usually a strong tip to win the Oscar. The film also has a great backstory and a Cannes Screenplay win, though festival prizes aren't too important for oscar voters.

Final Predictions-

Argentina (35%)
Poland (28%)
Russia (20%)
Mauritania  (15%)
Estonia (2%)

Good luck to the unconventional nominees!



Monday, January 12, 2015

Foreign Film Predictions- Final Five

So, I only got four out of nine finalists right. While I'm thrilled that the Academy recognized the brilliance of Mauritanian debutante "Timbuktu" (which I have seen) and the nontraditional brilliant black comedy of Argentina's "Wild Tales" (which I have not seen), I'm disappointed with their selection of "Ida" (a perfectly ordinary film that I virtually forgot the day after I saw it), "Corn Island" (well-made but dull) and "Force Majeure" (not exactly dull but very pretentious).

And of course, like everyone else I made the mistake of predicting "Two Days, One Night", forgetting that Oscar really, really hates les Freres Dardenne. The trailer for "Two Days" looks great, but I must admit I usually hate the brothers too.

So, who will make the Top Five? It will be really close this year....Eight of the nine are really competitive films while the ninth- Georgia's "Corn Island"- was clearly selected by the Elite Committee perhaps due to some sort of coin toss or fetish for learning how one grows corn.

Final Predictions:
Argentina, Mauritania, Poland, Russia and Venezuela

Who I want to be nominated:
Argentina, Estonia, Mauritania, Netherlands and Russia,

TOP TIER-  
1. RUSSIA- "Leviathan"
2. MAURITANIA- "Timbuktu"
3. POLAND- "Ida"

I think these three films are safe because there is a "consensus" they are great movies. Yesterday's Golden Globe win for political critique "Leviathan" (Best Screenplay at Cannes) probably locked up an Oscar nomination for RUSSIA. It's supposed to be both accessible and intelligent, with a great political backstory (though few Oscar voters care about that sort of thing). Formerly an Oscar superpower, this will only be Russia's second nomination in fifteen years. POLAND's "Ida" is probably also safe. Though I fail to understand how the film is any different from dozens of forgotten low-budget Eastern European submissions over the years, the film has been a critical and box-office success, dominating the Foreign Film Awards among year-end American film critics (possibly the only one many of them saw?) and somehow sweeping the European Film Awards as well. I would love to see a surprise snub, but this B&W nun's tale seems safe. MAURITANIA is competing for the first time and "Timbuktu" was the best film I saw at the Busan International Film Festival last year. Focusing on the 2012 jihadist takeover of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012, "Timbuktu" is a perfect "Foreign Language Film". It's surprisingly accessible to Western audiences yet exotic enough to entrance. It's grim and sad, but with many moments of humor. Oscar has often honored this type of film and this is a superior effort.

MIDDLE TIER-
4. ARGENTINA- "Wild Tales"
5. VENEZUELA- "Libertador"
6. NETHERLANDS- "Lucia de B." (aka "The Accused")

These three are really close and I'm not sure who will be left out....Let's look at the Pros & Cons:

ARGENTINA's Almodovar-esque black comedy "Wild Tales"
PRO:   Universally liked and a real crowd-pleaser. Probably the best reviews of any film on the list.
CON: It's a comedy competing in what is usually a very serious, humorless category.

NETHERLANDS' pulled-from-the-headlines legal thriller "Lucia de B."
PRO: Solid mainstream Dutch effort. Supremely accessible, relatable. Director Paula van Oest managed a surprise Oscar nomination once before.
CON: No buzz, no awards. Nobody's heard of the film and the film couldn't even manage a Best Picture nomination at the Golden Calf Awards. Too mainstream? (Similarly themed "Omar Killed Me" made the shortlist but failed to advance)

VENEZUELA's historical biopic of Simon Bolivar, "Libertador"
PRO: Expensive, large-scale historical drama with lots of action and costumes. Rumor has it that it received an exceptionally warm reception during its Oscar screening.
CON: Reviews are easily the weakest of these three films, with many saying it's a rather well-made history lesson. Biopics rarely score well in this category since many people don't know much about the subjects. No awards from anywhere.

In the end, I think Argentina's critical acclaim will get them to the finals (After all, Amelie and Almodovar managed comedy nominations). For the fifth slot, it's a virtual tie for 5th between Netherlands + Venezuela plus Estonia and Sweden. Like "Mongol", I think "Libertador"'s production values will see it through for the fifth and final slot.

BOTTOM TIER-
7. ESTONIA- "Tangerines"
8. SWEDEN- "Force Majeure"
9. GEORGIA- "Corn Island"

These three arthouse films are more divisive, meaning they may struggle to get selected for the Top Five. Quite unbelievably, two of the three films have the same obscure topic, focusing on the lives of ordinary civilians living through the civil war in Abkhazia (!)

It should be noted that Estonia and Sweden both made the Top Five at the Golden Globes. "Force Majeure" has been a critical darling among arthouse critics while "Tangerines" has quietly been building buzz. Both of them are definitely in with a chance. SWEDEN's film- "Force Majeure"- also won the Jury Prize at Cannes (Un Certain Regard) but it's pretentious, cerebral, talky plot is exactly the sort of film that may struggle to overcome the last hurdle to make it to the Final Five. ESTONIA's "Tangerines", about two Estonian settlers in Abkhazia caught in the middle of an ethnic civil war between Abkhazians and Georgians, is said to be a very special film. I've heard very good things about it and would love to predict a first nomination for the smallest of the ex-Soviet republics, but there are some who dislike the film meaning that it will probably just miss out on a nomination. The same can't be said about GEORGIA's "Corn Island", a dull film about an old Abkhaz man and his homely, barely clothed teenaged daughter who shelter a Georgian soldier while spending their year growing corn.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

FINAL PREDICTIONS

FINAL PREDICTIONS

I’ve been on the road on and off for most of the past two months without a laptop so I haven’t gotten a chance to rank the Eastern Europeans (you can see a quick review at the end of the Post). But the Final Nine are being announced later today so that means it’s time for my Final Predictions.

This was a rough year. With a record 83 countries, it’s nearly impossible to get a handle on all the films competing. There are no locks. Even Mauritania’s “Timbuktu” (which I see as the most likely candidate) could easily be snubbed. With so many high-profile films in play, it may seem stupid to predict dark horses like Bulgaria and Kyrgyzstan, but I’ve got a hunch we'll see one or both of them on the Final List.

A few words about "Ida", which has somehow emerged as the front-runner for the Oscar. For those of you who haven't seen it, “Ida”, a well-lit, pleasant but forgettable B&W film from Poland. Frankly, I don’t understand all the excitement. Since when does pretty cinematography equal an Oscar? I have been predicting a surprise snub for “Ida” but its recent win at the European Film Awards and its nomination at the Golden Globes show the film clearly has a great deal of love (and momentum). I could pretend it’s the Jewish WWII subject matter, but frankly far superior films (like Hungary’s unrecognized “Fateless”) on that subject have been ignored by the committee before. So, I really don't understand....I still am not sure “Ida” can crack the Top Six but the Elite Committee is probably ready and willing to save it. But I hope not. One interesting possible scenario: BULGARIA’s Jewish themed WWII story “Bulgarian Rhapsody” (which I hear is quite good) does make the Top Six making a snub for “Ida” more palatable, and making room for "Wild Tales". Black comedy "Wild Tales" is probably the best-reviewed film on the whole list, but it will struggle to find a fan base. I hope it replaces "Ida". Fingers crossed.

FINAL PREDICTIONS
1. MAURITANIA- “Timbuktu”
2. BELGIUM- “Two Days, One Night”
3. ISRAEL- “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem”
4. SPAIN- “Living is Easy with Eyes Closed”
5. KYRGYZSTAN- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”
6. POLAND- “Ida” (I hope I’m wrong!)
7. RUSSIA- “Leviathan”
8. BULGARIA- “Bulgarian Rhapsody”
9. ESTONIA- “Tangerines”

EQUALLY LIKELY ALTERNATES:
10. CANADA- “Mommy” (elite committee only)
11. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Fair Play”
12. ARGENTINA- “Wild Tales” (fingers crossed! I really hope I’m wrong!!)
13. ITALY- “Human Capital”
14. NETHERLANDS- “The Accused” (Lucia de B.)
15. GREECE- “Little England”

DARK HORSES
16. SWEDEN- “Force Majeure”
17. UKRAINE- “The Guide”
18. TURKEY- “Winter Sleep”
19. HUNGARY- White God”
20. SOUTH KOREA- “Sea Fog” (Haemoo)
21. VENEZUELA- “Libertador”

LONG SHOTS
22. LEBANON- “Ghadi”
23. CUBA- “Conducta”
24. GERMANY- “Beloved Sisters”
25. ETHIOPIA- “Difret”
26. PHILIPPINES- “Norte, the End of History”
27. ICELAND- “Life in a Fishbowl”
28. MALTA- “Simshar”
29. AUSTRALIA- “Charlie’s Country”
30. KOSOVO- “Three Windows and a Hanging”

HONORABLE MENTION
31. CHILE- “To Kill A Man”
32. GEORGIA- “Corn Island”
33. MEXICO- "Cantinflas"
34. PERU- "Gospel of the Flesh"
35. DENMARK- "Sorrow and Joy"
36. PALESTINE- "Eyes of a Thief"

No, I haven't forgotten "The Way He Looks", "Saint Laurent" or "Concrete Night". They're not contenders.

We'll find out later today!

EASTERN EUROPE RANKINGS (if I'd had time)
NO CHANCE IN HELL: Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia
EXTREMELY UNLIKELY: Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Latvia, Slovakia
MIDDLE CANDIDATES: Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania
DARK HORSES: Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine
FRONT-RUNNERS: Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Russia

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 21 Nominees from Western Europe

The 21 films from Western Europe (including Israel and Turkey) are aiming to dominate this year's race as they traditionally have. Half of them have an actual shot at the Final Nine and competition is going to be tight, especially with 60 other countries jockeying for position. Will the elite committee be swayed by major awards (Turkey) or big names that have perpetually been snubbed (Belgium)? Will the big committee be impressed by buzz (Sweden) or old-fashioned storytelling (Spain)? Will they impressed by "gorgeous" films (Germany) with middling reviews or "gritty" films with better ones (Finland)? Or could they give the new kid (Malta) a chance?

NO CHANCE
21. LUXEMBOURG- "Never Die Young"
20. UNITED KINGDOM- "Little Happiness"
19. SWITZERLAND- "The Circle"
18. PORTUGAL- "What Now? Remind Me"


Documentaries generally aren't a good fit in this category, but that didn't stop perennial European underdogs Luxembourg and Portugal (as well as 2-time winner Switzerland) from sending them this year. All three of these have gotten fairly good reviews (including a Locarno Jury Prize for Portugal and a Berlinale Audience Award for Switzerland) but there's no reason to believe they'll be honored here.

LUXEMBOURG's "Never Die Young" is a 70-minute look at the life of a recovering heroin addict who ended up in a wheelchair during an escape attempt from court. Unlike Portugal and Switzerland, it hasn't won awards internationally and sounds a bit preachy. It's Western Europe's longest of long-shots.

The Foreign Film committee has shown little interest in LGBT-themed films over the years (ignoring "C.R.A.Z.Y.", "Ma vie en Rose", "Contracorriente" among others). Therefore an LGBT documentary has two strikes against it. PORTUGAL's "What Now? Remind Me" is a nearly three-hour autobiographical look at a year in the life of an HIV-positive Portuguese filmmaker. SWITZERLAND's docudrama "The Circle" is a bit more accessible (though perhaps not as good) as it combines documentary and interview footage with re-enactments of a gay love story in homophobic 1958 Switzerland. I've heard some say that "The Circle" might have done better as one or the other (doc vs. drama) and might be better suited for television. "What Now?" will struggle to find a support base.

As for the UK's obscure Turkish-language "Little Happiness", it was one of the biggest surprises on this year's long list. This drama about a young Turkish couple desperately trying to escape honor killings and arranged marriages at home, was made by a Turkish director based in Britain with a mostly Turkish crew. There's little info about it online but it has the lowest IMDB rating of any film in the whole race (3.9) and the trailer looks rather grim. I'm surprised the usually finicky BAFTA submitted it. No chance.

OUT OF LUCK-
17. AUSTRIA- "The Dark Valley"

16. FINLAND- "Concrete Night"
15. DENMARK- "Sorrow and Joy"
14. IRELAND- "The Gift"

These films simply aren't well-liked or well-reviewed enough to contemplate getting to the next round.

Recently, the Danes have been a superpower in this category, but DENMARK's "Sorrow and Joy" seems a poor choice. While one must applaud director Nils Malmros for facing his demons and making a film about the incident in which his wife Marianne murdered their young baby due to a psychotic episode (they're still together), reviews have been decidedly mixed. Positive reviews tend to focus on the emotion of the director's backstory and the performance of the lead actress rather than saying anything particularly nice about the film itself. Similarly, reviews for Tyrolean western "The Dark Valley" from AUSTRIA mostly compliment the beautiful production design but even though who LIKE the film agree it's grim and cold. Nobody seems to love it, meaning no high-ranking votes. For the record, it follows a mysterious man who receives a rather hostile reception when he arrives in a small town near the turn of the 20th century.

As for IRELAND, hoping for their first nomination in this category, "The Gift" is unlikely to be it. Reviews have been pleasant enough for this thriller (in Irish Gaelic, English and Polish) about a ship's crew facing a moral dilemma when they discover a crime scene and a huge amount of cash. But it's basically a TV movie.

Reviews for FINLAND's "Concrete Night" have been much stronger than the other three but it's the exact opposite of what the Oscar Foreign Film committee tends to select. This grim B&W drama is about a 14-year old bonding with his older brother before the latter goes to jail. The film is dark and depressing and has more in common with countless Eastern Euro dramas that have been ignored and forgotten over the years. It won't stand out.

TOO MUCH COMPETITION

13. FRANCE- "Saint Laurent"
12. NORWAY- "1001 Grams"
11. ICELAND- "Life in a Fishbowl"
10. MALTA- "Simshar"


Simply put, these four countries have sent well-reviewed dramas that will struggle to stand out in the crowd.

FRANCE's "Saint Laurent" is not even the biggest biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent made in France this year (though it did book a Cannes slot and get better reviews than the more widely-seen "Yves Saint Laurent"). Though France is still a film-making super-power, they haven't been nominated in five years and this biopic hasn't gotten more than average reviews.

ICELAND's "Life in a Fishbowl" is said to be the best Icelandic film of all-time. Unfortunately, the people who are saying that are all from Iceland. This drama about three characters whose lives intersect in Reykjavik on the eve of the country's 2008 financial crisis presents stories that are instantly relatable for a local audience. It captures the "zeitgeist" and will dominate the country's upcoming Edda Awards. For those outside of Iceland, they will probably see this tale of a struggling single mother, an alcoholic writer and ambitious footballer as merely a very good film.


NORWAY's Bent Hamer is on his third try with Oscar with another quiet, barely noticeable drama (he previously competed with "Kitchen Stories" and "O.Horten"), namely "1001 Grams". In the film, a female Norwegian researcher finds the potential for romance on a trip to Paris to attend a conference on defining the weight of a kilogram. Hamer's minimalist stories have never found favor with the Academy. They're not bad...just wispy and lightweight and they will struggle to stick in the memory of voters watching 81 films.

Last is MALTA, competing for the very first time with real-life shipwreck drama "Simshar". The Maltese are the second-smallest country in the race this year (Population: 415,000...just ahead of Iceland). By all accounts, "Simshar" is a powerful debut, based on a 2008 family tragedy intermixed with a story of asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. 30-year old debut filmmaker Rebecca Cremona should feel proud that Malta is probably going to beat established European powers like Bosnia, Denmark and France in the (secret) rankings, but the film probably isn't going to be considered quite strong enough to get to the Final Nine. (Having said that, the similarly themed "The Deep" made the shortlist despite similar problems). Welcome, Malta!

DARK HORSES
9. GERMANY- "Beloved Sisters"
8. TURKEY- "Winter Sleep"
7. SWEDEN- "Force Majeure"
8. ITALY- "Human Capital"
9. NETHERLANDS-"Lucia de B."


In a normal year, all five of these films would be strong threats for the shortlist, but with so much competition this year, I think they will all fall short. One could surprise.

First of all, GERMANY's "Beloved Sisters" (Berlin) has the highest production values but the weakest reviews. Although some clearly like the film, most say that this period costume drama is prettier to look at than it is to follow the true-life plot of two aristocratic sisters fighting for the attentions of a young writer. If voters want to honor a soap opera about two feuding sisters in a love triangle, they'll more likely to vote for Greece (see below). Still, it's always hard to count out Germany as they are expert judges of what AMPAS likes. But "Sisters" hasn't won a thing so I'm skeptical of its chances.

I've managed to see two of the most popular titles on the list, namely SWEDEN's "Force Majeure" (disappointing) and ITALY's "Human Capital". "Human Capital" (which beat Oscar winner "Great Beauty" at Italy's Donatello Awards earlier this year) is clearly the superior film. Skillfully telling the stories leading up to a hit-and-run accident from the perspectives of two Italian families (one aristocratic, one middle-class), "Human Capital" is both a fascinating mystery and a well-written character study. Arthouse "Force Majeure" is more of an acquired taste. A Swedish family of four on a French ski vacation experiences a frightening avalanche. Then they proceed to talk about it. And they talk about it. And then they talk about it with their friends. And then their friends talk about it. The film might inspire some existential "What if?" discussions among the audience but as a film I frankly don't understand what all the fuss is about it. Having said that, the film is one of the front-runners to get an Elite Committe slot. The arthouse critics clearly love it and it's sure to be ignored by the larger committee meaning that it may indeed make it to the next round. That would be disappointing.

TURKEY's "Winter Sleep" is a real wild card and another contender for the Elite Three. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Three Monkeys" made the shortlist in 2008 without any elite help and this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner is said to be better and more accessible. However, buzz has cooled down considerably for this drama about an urban transplant running an inn in rural Turkey and it always seemed more popular with Eurocentric critics than American ones. With 81 films in play, I think "Sleep" is destined to be an also-ran.

Lastly, we have the NETHERLANDS' "Lucia de B." (aka "The Accused), a legal thriller based on the case of a prosecutor who convicts a nurse of a number of killings but who later has a change of heart and tries to clear the woman's name. Director van der Oest has been a surprise Oscar nominee before ("Zus & Zo"). Too much of a mainstream effort to be selected by the Elite Three, this film has to try and charm the Large Committee for a chance to grab one of the final spots.

GOOD SHOT AT THE SHORTLIST

4. GREECE- "Little England"
3. ISRAEL- "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem"
2. BELGIUM- "Two Days, One Night


Belgium, Greece and Israel could all make the shortlist. Let's look at the pros and cons:

BELGIUM- "Two Days, One Night"
Overview: Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as a woman desperately trying to convince her co-workers one-by-one to save her from being laid off. If they vote to keep her on the pay-roll, all the other employees will lose their year-end bonus amounting to major economic hardship for all.
Pros: Cotillard is said to be wonderful, and the film got great reviews (though no awards) at Cannes. It also arguably has the strongest buzz of any film. The usually dull Freres Dardenne are said to reach "thriller" levels of tension. Elite Committee would stave off embarrassment by choosing it.
Cons: Oscar has never liked the Brothers Dardenne (neither have I). No Golden Globe nom.

GREECE- "Little England"
Overview: A gorgeous period drama set in the 1930s, about two sisters on a small island inhabited mainly by women (the menfolk are usually at sea) who fall for the same handsome sailor.
Pros: It's a "big" film and production values are supposed to be beautiful, helping attract votes from the tech branch members. Everyone who has seen the film says it's very good- a soap opera in the best sense of the word. Won Best Picture in Shanghai (a middle-sized fest).
Cons: The film has barely been seen outside of Greece. Running time (160 minutes) is very long. Female-centered films rarely score in this category.

ISRAEL- "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem"
Overview: A Jewish woman faces off against Israel's religiously linked "divorce court" system as she attempts to obtain a divorce from her husband over his strong objections.
Pros: Made the Top Five at the Golden Globes. American audiences will easily identify with the protagonist and relate to the film, while also being fascinated by the "foreignness" of the Jewish divorce court. Oscar likes Israel and reviews have been very strong.
Cons: None, really. It will definitely place high, but will it be high enough?

Bottom Line- It's a tight race. I think the Elite Committee will save "Two Days" if ignored by the larger group, and believe that "Gett" is very likely to qualify from the big committee. Buzz is less important with the independent-minded voters on the Foreign Film Committee so Greece could make it as well though they're more likely to be left out. It's gonna be close!

FRONT-RUNNER

1. SPAIN-"Living is Easy with Eyes Closed"

So, I'm predicting SPAIN will be the strongest contender from Western Europe. Turkey won Cannes, Belgium has buzz and Sweden + Israel got Globe nominations, so why predict Spain as #1? Simply put, Spain has what the Academy likes. First of all, reviews have been very strong for this 1960s road trip dramedy about a professor who picks up two hitchhikers on a way to see the Beatles in concert. The film swept the Goyas in Spain and tells a bittersweet comic story that will charm older voters and alienate nobody. High ranked votes are assured and should get Spain to the Final Five for the first time since their Oscar win for "The Sea Inside" in 2005.

 Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  16, including 3 in French, 3 in German, 2 in Turkish and one each in Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and the first-ever submission made mostly in Maltese

Highest profile film:  It’s a tie between two Cannes titles, namely Belgium’s “Two Days, One Night” and Turkey Palme d’Or winner “Winter Sleep”

Number of Western European countries participating this year:  21

Number of debuts: One, Malta. With Malta’s participation, Cyprus is the only EU country and the only major film-making country in Western Europe never to enter.

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21

Number of countries opting out:  Just one! Greenland (population: 55,000) didn’t produce any feature films this year.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Strong year for Western Europe. About half the titles (10) have a decent shot at the 9-film shortlist.   

Number of countries I predicted correctly:         10- Austria, Belgium, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Spain and Turkey.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing:           I’ve already seen “Human Capital” (Italy) and "Force Majeure" (Sweden) but I’m intrigued by the moral dilemmas in Ireland’s “The Gift”.  

Feature Debuts:             This is an extremely experienced group of directors. The only debutante is Rebecca Cremona of Malta.                           

Number of Comedies:  None, really. There are some comedic elements to “Living Is Easy” and theoretically also "Force Majeure" (though I didn't find it funny) but no laugh-out-loud comedies.

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films:      Three documentaries (Luxembourg, Portugal and Switzerland) who will have no luck here.

Oscar History:  ELEVEN of the directors have been selected before, though only Paula van der Oest (Netherlands) can call herself an Oscar nominee. She got one for “Zus & Zo” in the 2002-2003 competition. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey) made the 9-film shortlist with “Three Monkeys” in 2008-2009 and was also entered in 2003 (Distant) and 2011 (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia). Most people think the Brothers Dardenne (Belgium) have been honored by Oscar, but they are only darlings at Cannes. Their  films were submitted three time previously in 1999, 2002 and 2005 (for Rosetta, The Son and The Child respectively). Also submitted in the past: Tom Collins (Ireland, 2007, Kings), Pol Cruchten (Luxembourg, 2007, Little Secrets), Bent Hamer (Norway, 2003/2008, Kitchen Stories & O. Horten), Nils Malmros (Denmark, 1977/1982/1997 for Boys, Tree of Knowledge and Barbara), Ruben Östlund (Sweden, 2009, Involuntary), David Trueba (Spain, 2003, Soldiers of Salamina) and Paolo Virzì (Italy, 2010, First Beautiful Thing). Pantelis Voulgaris’ “Brides” (Greece) was selected but disqualified in 2005.

Of the 21 countries, nine have won Oscars, five have been nominated multiple times, two have been nominated just once and one more (Turkey) has managed a shortlist spot. Only Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal (plus newcomer Malta) have never been nominated. Portugal holds the world record for most submissions with no luck whatsoever.

Number of Female Directors:  Four ladies are competing this year, namely Rebecca Cremona (Malta), Ronit Elkabetz (Israel), Pirjo Honkasalo (Finland) and Paula van der Oest (Netherlands).

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  There’s a 44-year age difference between 74-year old Pantelis Voulgaris of Greece and 30-year old Rebecca Cremona of Malta.   

Familiar Faces:  The big star of course is Marion Cotillard who stars in “Two Days, One Night” and who is hoping for a second Best Actress nomination. The French submission “Saint Laurent” also boasts a fairly big-name Francophone cast including Lea Seydoux (Mission Impossible), Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), Louis Garrel (Dreamers). Valeria Bruni Tedeschi co-stars in both the French and Italian nominees. The Spanish submission co-stars famous actors like Ariadna Gil, Jorge Sanz and frequent Almodovar collaborator Javier Camara.

You may also recognize Valeria Golino in “Human Capital”, actress-director Ronit Elkabetz  in “Gett”, Marianne Sägebrecht (“Bagdad Café”) in “The Circle”, British actor Sam Riley (“Maleficient”) in “The Dark Valley”, Nicolas Bro in “Sorrow and Joy”

Controversies and Changes:     As usual, the Western Europeans were pretty well-behaved this year. I anticipated a bit of controversy over Ireland’s submission “The Gift”, which was filmed with the intention of making both a feature film for cinemas and a television mini-series. However, unlike “Burning Bush” (disqualified last year) the film premiered in cinemas BEFORE the television series so no rules were broken.

Omissions:        Several countries had very competitive races (especially Austria, Italy and Sweden), with notable absences being crowd-pleaser "The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared" (which I thought was much better than talky "Force Majeure") and Lukas Moodysson's "We Are the Best" (both from Sweden), as well as "Amour Fou", which many thought would represent Austria, "The Wonders" and "Black Souls" (from Italy) and "Stations of the Cross" (Germany).

Last year's race:              I saw 9 of last year’s 19 submissions, including eventual winner “The Great Beauty” (B) which I thought ran out of steam halfway after a brilliant start.  My favorite was the sickly brilliant Dutch thriller “Borgman” (A), followed by Denmark’s “The Hunt” (A-). I also saw “The Wall” (B-), “Broken Circle Breakdown” (B+), “Renoir” (C), “Two Lives” (B+), “Blind Spot” (B+) and “More Than Honey” (B+)


Thursday, December 4, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 21 Nominees from Asia & the Pacific

Here’s my favorite batch of submissions- the films from Asia and the Pacific. Last year, Asian countries got an impressive three spots on the 9-film list (Cambodia, Hong Kong and Palestine). I doubt they’ll maintain that number this year, but here’s hoping they get at least two. Israel + Turkey think they are Western European countries (even though they're not) so they'll be in the next round of predictions.

One surprise this year is the number of countries who selected foreign-born directors. China’s director is from France, Taiwan’s director is from Burma and Iraq’s director is from Iran. And though they have long worked in their adopted countries, Hong Kong and Australia’s directors are from China and the Netherlands respectively and Japan’s director is a Korean citizen born in Japan. Another theme from the Asian films this year is the presence of strong female lead characters. I find it interesting that the films from South and Central Asia have all chosen films dominated by strong female leads (Bangladesh, India, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan).

WAY OUT OF THEIR LEAGUE

21. SINGAPORE- “Sayang Disayang”
20. BANGLADESH- “Glow of the Firefly”


I think it’s great that small, lesser developed film industries like BANGLADESH and SINGAPORE participate in the Oscar race. In the coming year, I’ll do my best to track down and watch these two intriguing titles. Having said that, Bengali-language melodrama “Glow of the Firefly” and low-budget Malay-language musical “Sayang Disayang” are clearly out of their league here. The spare 70-minute “Sayang Disayang” is about a grumpy old Malay-Singaporean man who is assigned a live-in Indonesian maid/caretaker who enjoys singing around the house while she cooks. Shot on a minuscule indie budget ($US315K) by a brand-new director, it looks like a visually interesting student film. And don’t expect the Malay-language melodies to resonate with the Oscar voters either. Foreign-language musicals are a hard sell. “Glow of the Firefly” (aka Jonakir Alo) is about a kind-hearted woman torn between two suitors and her dream of adopting a child. Bangladeshi films rarely have the production values to compete at the international level and “Firefly” is no exception. It’s also the only title on the list that has zero voters at the IMDB AND it will be the last of the 83 titles to screen for the committee. Not promising signs. Better luck next year.

NO CHANCE







19. THAILAND- “The Teacher’s Diary”
18. INDONESIA- “Soekarno”
17. NEPAL- “Jhola”
16. HONG KONG- “The Golden Era”

One step up the ladder are a glossy historical drama, a formulaic box-office hit rom-com, a creaky biopic and a look at the traditional Hindu custom of sati (bride burning). All of them are unlikely to appeal to the Oscar committee for several reasons. INDONESIA’s “Soekarno” is an expensive biopic of the country’s controversial first President, but the history lesson will be too obscure for American voters, Indonesian historical dramas tend to be somewhat didactic and dull and reviews have been mixed. NEPAL’s “Jhola” has a morbidly fascinating topic (a woman escapes sati, the ancient Hindu tradition of forcing widows to commit suicide by jumping on their husbands’ funeral pyre) and the filmmaking looks quite exotic and pretty. It was a major word-of-mouth success at home in Nepal, but I think the melodramatic acting will fail to appeal. The only one of these films that anyone has really heard of is Ann Hui’s three-hour biopic “The Golden Era” from HONG KONG, about an obscure Chinese female poet who died at age 35. While it’s supposed to be competently made and well-acted, it’s also supposed to be overlong and fairly boring. Poet Xiao Hong may have been very talented, but poetry is hard to translate and this film looks like a non-starter. Last in the group is THAILAND’s “The Teacher’s Diary”, a “concept” romantic dramedy about a man who falls in love with a woman he has never met by reading her diary. This was a popular hit in Thailand this year, but even the head of Thailand’s Film Academy admitted that he was perplexed about selecting this for the Oscars. Imagine the USA choosing “You’ve Got Mail” (a pleasant-enough romantic comedy) to represent the country at a prestigious international film festival and you’ve got an idea of what the Thai have done. These four have no chance.




EXTREMELY UNLIKELY
15. TAIWAN- “Ice Poison”
14. IRAN- “Today”
13. JAPAN- “The Light Shines Only There”
12. PAKISTAN- “Dukhtar”
11. INDIA- “Liar’s Dice”


Interestingly enough, rivals India and Pakistan have both chosen similarly themed female-helmed, female-driven road movies. From PAKISTAN comes “Dukhtar” (Daughter). It’s about a wife who flees her village with her young daughter when she learns her husband plans to marry the girl off to a brutish elderly clan leader in order to end a blood feud between their two families. From INDIA, comes “Liar’s Dice” about a wife who leaves her village with her young daughter to SEARCH for her husband who has gone missing after moving to the big city to find work. “Dukhtar” has booked a number of festival screenings (Toronto, Busan) while “Liar’s Dice” has been more quiet. Having seen “Dukhtar”, it’s a good movie but it’s clearly the work of a director still learning her craft. There are a few unrealistic moments and a few too many South Asian film clichés. I haven’t seen “Liar’s Dice” yet but I get the feeling it may suffer from some of the same issues.


IRAN’s “Today” is supposed to be quite good, but reviewers note that it is too subtle to appeal to a wide audience, and sometimes too culturally “different” to be comprehensible to a Western audience. The story focuses on an Iranian taxi driver who becomes involved in the life of a pregnant single woman when she enters his cab while going into labor.

TAIWAN’s gritty “Ice Poison”, set in Burma, is about an ethnic Chinese couple’s efforts to make ends meet in a crime-ridden border area rife with drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution and violence. It has gotten some excellent reviews, but reaction has been divided with some clearly hating the slow, cinema verité style.

Lastly, JAPAN has once again made a bizarre selection choice with “The Light Shines Only There”, a grim, obscure film about an unemployed, alcoholic slacker who falls for the sister of a friend. Reviewers generally say the film is depressing and filled with drinking binges and meaningless sex. Not the sort of film that’s generally honored or appreciated here, so not sure why Japan sent it in. Why not “World of Kanako” or “Little House”?

MIDDLE-OF-THE-PACK


10. NEW ZEALAND- “The Dead Lands”
9. IRAQ- “Mardan”
8. AFGHANISTAN- “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”
7. PALESTINE- “Eyes of a Thief”
In the middle of the pack are the submissions from three of Asia’s most troubled countries, plus a rare Maori epic from New Zealand.
AFGHANISTAN’s “A Few Cubic Meters of Love” (which I saw in Busan) is a really interesting love story about the relationship between the teenaged daughter of an Afghan refugee in Iran (formerly a doctor in Afghanistan, but now an exploited laborer) and a handsome Iranian boy working on the construction site where her father works. Made in Iran by a young, new director (himself an Afghan refugee), it’s not a perfect film but it certainly shows potential and packs an emotional wallop. It will place well.
NEW ZEALAND arranged an early qualifying release for Maori warrior epic “The Dead Lands” (Toronto), a violent historical action movie about a young man trying to avenge the murder of most of his clan. “Dead Lands” will be competing directly against another period warrior epic- “Kurmandjan Datka” (Kyrgyzstan) and I’d give the Kyrgyz film the edge. “Dead Lands” looks great but it just seems like too much of a violent action movie to score enough votes here. Of course, some will point to the similarities with shortlisted “Seediq Bale”, but I just think “Dead Lands” is too much of a genre pic to make it to the next round.
The obscure slow-burn mystery “Mardan” from IRAQ's Kurdistan region was one of the last films to be added to the Oscar list. It’s the directorial debut of Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s brother Batin and it’s said to be a brooding drama in the style of Nuri Bilge Ceylan about a hardened police detective investigating a murder in the Kurdish countryside. Though the film has gotten good reviews, it seems to be too cerebral. The reviews I’ve read say it relies heavily on symbolism that may not translate to the mainstream.
PALESTINE’s Najwa Najjar became the second woman to represent Palestine with “Eyes of a Thief” which opened in Ramallah at the last minute to qualify. It’s the story of a man freed from an Israeli prison after ten years who begins a desperate search for the daughter he left behind (interestingly Iraq sent a similar film, “Jani Gal”, in 2008). AMPAS has shown a great deal of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum (nominating several Israeli and Palestinian films dealing with the conflict) and “Thief” could ride that wave to victory. However, the reviews I’ve read say it’s a solid film but there’s nothing to indicate its good enough to advance further than this.

DARK HORSES


6. CHINA- “The Nightingale”
5. AUSTRALIA- “Charlie’s Country”
4. PHILIPPINES- “Norte, the End of History”
3. LEBANON- “Ghadi”

All four of these films are in with a chance, though ultimately they’ll probably fail to finish higher than 15th or 20th in the race. Loads of people are talking about “Norte, the End of History” (Cannes 2013)- a drama about a murderer who goes free and an innocent man sent to jail- from the PHILIPPINES as a potential nominee. However, I’m not convinced. First of all, it’s four hours long. Despite director Lav Diaz’s comments that a movie doesn’t have to be two hours (his latest film is eight hours) many Academy members will beg to differ (me too!). Going to the movies is not like watching a season of “The Killing”. Films and mini-series are very different animals. “Norte” does fulfill some of the criteria we’ve come to expect from the Elite Committee (it’s edgy, arty and very much in need of a save) so it definitely has a chance of being nominated by the smaller group, but forget the large committee. It appears to be on iTunes so maybe I’ll pretend it’s a TV show.
CHINA raised eyebrows when they chose the obscure “Nightingale”, a Chinese-language film directed by a Frenchman loosely remaking his own film “Le papillon”. It’s about a rural grandfather who ends up taking a trip with his spoiled, tech-obsessed granddaughter. While many were annoyed that China didn’t select one of their better-known festival efforts, the more I think about this choice, the smarter it seems to be. China’s Oscar submissions are usually praised in the West for their technical achievements but are criticized for being cold and/or lacking a certain soul. Having a European director at the helm with a Euro/French style (Oscar loves French films) and an intergenerational plotline may be the just the sort of film that Oscar likes. But reviews have been positive but enuthusiastic.
“Charlie’s Country” is the third Aboriginal film to compete at the Oscars, after “Ten Canoes” and the (terrible) shortlisted “Samson & Delilah”. Films like “Charlie” that have a lot of supporting dialogue in English make them easier to watch and might give AUSTRALIA an edge. This story of an Aboriginal man who unsuccessfully decides to “drop out” of modern society and live in the bush the way his ancestors did won Best Actor at Cannes. It’s supposed to be a good film, though it’s usually mentioned more for its acting than anything else.
LEBANON is trying for the “Amelie” slot (again) with feel-good comedy “Ghadi”, about a mentally handicapped boy who may or may not be an angel, and who breathes new life into his hectic Lebanese community. Winner of a huge number of Audience Awards worldwide, this is a definite crowd pleaser though it’s probably too light to make the next round. If Oscar didn’t go for Toronto winner “Where Do We Go Now?” (one of my favorites), they likely won’t go for the lower-profile “Ghadi” either, but here’s hoping for a US release!

REAL CONTENDERS
2. SOUTH KOREA- “Sea Fog”
1. KYRGYZSTAN- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”

Korea and Kyrgyzstan are the most likely Asian candidates to make the Final Nine shortlist this year. Having said that, I’d be somewhat surprised if more than one made the final list.

Tense maritime thriller KOREA's “Sea Fog” (Toronto) has the stronger buzz and it’s been quite well-received by both domestic and foreign critics. However, I still predict they will fail to make it since AMPAS consistently passes over incredibly good Korean films year after year after year. (Maybe it’s the truly hideous Korean language? Could that be it?) “Sea Fog”, about a ragtag ship's crew helping to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants to South Korea, is the sort of film that may find some success with the large committee- it's mainstream enough to be widely accessible and get lots of high votes, but the filmmaking is of a high-enough quality to be appeal to the arty people. Some fault characters without depth but that's almost every movie that takes place on a boat, right?

And then there was one....That only leaves this year's dark horse Asian front-runner- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”- the expensive biopic from KYRGYZSTAN which is hoping for a “Mongol”/”Seediq Bale” slot. Though they’ve never been nominated, Kyrgyzstan consistently sends excellent films to the competition (try to see "Wedding Chest" or "Tengri"). "Queen" tells the inspiring true story of a 19th century woman who bucked local traditions and defied the odds to become a military leader and strategist who united Kyrgyz tribes against Russian invasions. “Kurmandjan Datka” will suffer a little because voters don’t know (or care) about Kyrgyz history but perhaps the unexpected “warrior queen” aspect will help them overcome that. The film has something for everyone. It's beautifully shot (which will please members of AMPAS from the technical branches...these are guys that probably doomed "4 Months, 3 Weeks" a few years ago), culturally exotic with an even mix of action and artistic flourishes. A good dark horse. Good luck to the Queen.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: A diverse crowd...The 21 films are in 17 primary languages. There are two films apiece in Arabic (Lebanon, Palestine), Mandarin (China, Hong Kong) and Persian (Afghanistan, Iran) and one film each in Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Malay, Maori, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Yolngu and the Yunnanese dialect of Chinese.

Highest profile film: The Asian countries picked a mostly obscure set of films. The most buzz seems to be whirring around 4-hour drama “Norte, the End of History”, representing the Philippines, with Korea’s “Haemoo” (Sea Fog) a close second.

Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year: 21

Number of debuts: None

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 33

Number of countries opting out: 12. The shocking absence was Kazakhstan, easily the most important country missing this year (2 shortlist spots in the past 7 years) with a real potential Oscar contender - “Harmony Lessons” (which opened domestically in Kazakhstan in December 2013). Kazakhstan is always one of the last countries to announce…Did they miss the deadline? Did they forget? They were prominently featured in Busan 2013 so it’s so sad to have their national cinema absent this year.

The other key absentees were Cambodia, which got a surprise Oscar nomination last year for “The Missing Picture” and Vietnam, which claimed they did not receive an invitation from AMPAS this year. While Vietnam did in fact have some successful films this year, it’s unclear whether Cambodia had anything eligible.
Nobody should be surprised by the absence of a few countries that have only ever submitted films once (Bhutan, Fiji, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) or twice (Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan), although I did expect Mongolia might return with gentle drama “Remote Control” (Busan) or that Malaysia might do the right thing and nominate box-office hit “The Journey” despite their racist policy of promoting only Malay-language fare.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many. Three?

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I didn’t do so well. I only got four exactly right- Australia, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, which were all fairly easy. But I think I also deserve credit for New Zealand and Palestine which I would have predicted but thought wouldn’t get released in time. Lots of countries really threw me for a loop, especially China (whose nationalist authorities chose a film by a French director) and Thailand (which chose a routine rom-com over their most critically acclaimed film of the year).

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve seen the films from Afghanistan (B+) and Pakistan (B). If I could choose one more, it would definitely be either Kyrgyzstan’s gorgeous biopic “Kurmandjan Datka” or Lebanon’s audience favorite comedy “Ghadi”.

Feature Debuts: 9! Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan), Geethu Mohandas (India), Batin Ghobadi (Iraq), Shim Sang-bo (Korea), Sadyk Sher-niyaz (Kyrgyzstan), Amin Dora (Lebanon), Yadavkumar Bhattarai (Nepal), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Sanif Olek (Singapore).

Number of Comedies: Only two- Thailand romantic dramedy “The Teacher’s Diary” and Lebanon’s “Ghadi”

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: None.

Oscar History: Oscar has never really warmed to Asian cinema. Iran, Japan and Taiwan are the only countries who have won the award before, while only four others- China, India and Palestine- have been nominated before, plus Hong Kong for two Mainland China-produced films in the 1990s.

Only three directors have been in the race before. This is Ann Hui’s fourth time at the rodeo, having being submitted by Hong Kong in 1995 (“Summer Snow”), 1999 (“Ordinary Heroes”), and 2011 (“A Simple Life”). Reza Mirkarimi was selected twice by Iran, in 2005 (“ So Close, So Far Away”) and 2012 (“A Cube of Sugar”) though they ended up boycotting for political reasons in 2012. Last but not least, Australia’s submitted Rolf deHeer’s “12 Canoes” in 2006.

Number of Female Directors: 5 ladies this year- Ann Hui (Hong Kong), Geetu Mohandas (India), Najwa Najjar (Palestine), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Mipo Oh (Japan). Nathaniel is the first woman ever to represent Pakistan in the competition.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 67-year old Ann Hui is one of Hong Kong’s most respected directors, while 31-year old Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan) makes his feature debut with “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”. Mahmoudi’s family fled Afghanistan and moved to Iran as refugees when he was a year old.

Familiar Faces: Certainly the most familiar face is Tang Wei, star of "Lust, Caution" who plays the lead role in Hong Kong's "Golden Era". Film fans may also recognize Li Baotian ("Ju Dou"), Rena Owen ("Once We Were Warriors") and Egyptian heartthrob Khaled Abol Naga in the Chinese, New Zealand and Palestinian submissions.

Controversies and Changes: Not much in the way of controversy. Most countries chose their nominees without incident, although China did raise a few eyebrows by choosing a French director and a film that nobody has seen over more acclaimed festival fare by native Chinese directors. Then in Thailand, the head of Thailand’s Film Academy politely noted that he was “very surprised” at his country’s decision to pick a fairly unassuming rom-com.

And in India, of course bitter rival directors complained and made unfair allegations about the selection of “Liar’s Dice” because...well...they weren’t selected themselves. This happens every year as Indian directors don’t seem to be capable of congratulating one another!

Omissions: The most surprising omission was the aforementioned “Harmony Lessons” from Kazakhstan. Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” and Berlinale winner “Black Ice” were probably too politically sensitive for China. Besides Zhang, two other directors previously recognized by Oscar were snubbed, namely Yoji Yamada for “Little House” (Japan) and Wei Te-sheng who produced “Kano” (Taiwan)

Also missing from the race: Korea’s monster hit “Roaring Currents” (I’m glad they didn’t pick it), Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs” (Taiwan), "The Last Executioner" (Thailand), popular Bollywood favorite "Queen" (India), and Middle East dramas "Palestine Stereo" (Palestine) and "Che" (Iran).

Last year's race: Last year, I saw 11 of the 22 films from the Asia-Pacific countries (the only region to record a drop in entries this year) and they were a good lot, netting three spots on the official shortlist. My personal favorite was Saudi Arabia’s “Wadjda” (A), which succeeds on so many different levels and also because it has such a good backstory. Also very strong: Afghanistan’s “Wajma” (A-), Australia’s “The Rocket” (A-), Cambodia’s “The Missing Picture” (B+), Iran’s “The Past” (A-) and Palestine’s “Omar” (A-). Honorable mention to Thailand’s wacky horror film “Countdown” (B+ for a horror film, but definitely not an Oscar candidate) and Singapore’s “Ilo Ilo” (B). Somewhat less successful were China’s “Back to 1942” (B-), Korea’s melodrama “Juvenile Offender” (B-) and Taiwan’s “Soul” (B), though none were bad films. I’ve recently acquired the DVDs from Hong Kong, India, Japan and New Zealand and look forward to adding those to the list.