Tuesday, October 9, 2007

OSCAR FOREIGN FILM: WESTERN EUROPEAN SUBMISSIONS

FOREIGN OSCAR ANALYSIS: WESTERN EUROPE

Today, let's look at the 18 contenders from Western Europe and Turkey. Fair or not, these countries have always contributed the bulk of Oscar nominees in this category. Is this because have the best films? Not really....But a lot of the Western European countries (especially France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden) are savvy as to what this committee likes to see, i.e. heartwarming family dramas, sentimental comedies and World War II epics.

First, the statistics:

Number of countries invited: 18, plus Ireland who contacted the Academy to submit their first-ever film. All EU countries are now included, except Cyprus & Malta.

Number of countries submitting films: 18 out of 19

Number of countries opting out: Only one- Britain- whose London-based committee (under the auspices of BAFTA) has caused a huge controversy in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere by refusing to submit a film. This is especially odd because BAFTA launched an open call for submissions in July and received two eligible films who have both received critical acclaim at home and abroad. The producers of both films ("Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle", in Scottish Gaelic, and "Calon Gaeth" in Welsh) have cried foul and demanded an explanation. Despite an appeal to BAFTA, an official inquiry from AMPAS in Los Angeles to BAFTA, and the raising of the issue in the Scottish Parliament, BAFTA refused to reverse its decision, and refuses to give a reason why, citing confidentaility. Subsequent statements were quite childish, saying that they are not obligated to send a film if they didn't want to. "Seachd" would have been a dark horse to reach the shortlist...Although the film might not have made the nomination stage, the decision by BAFTA is absurd in its short-sightedness and is a major blow to the region's Celtic language cinema. The decision is certainly strange, and leaves Britain as the only Western European country completely out of the running.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: 9

Number of Languages Represented: 15: Albanian (1), Danish (1), Dutch (2), Finnish (1), French (2), German (4), Greek (1), Icelandic (1), Irish Gaelic (1), Italy (1), Letzebuergsch (1), Norwegian (1), Spanish (1), Swedish (1), Turkish (2) (Germany & Greece sent multi-lingual entries, so numbers don't add up to 17)

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: SEE BELOW, although there are so many countries with a good shot!

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: A tie between the Netherlands and Sweden! (who both usually does so well!)

Number of Comedies: 4: Finland, Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland. Some might include Sweden, though the film really has no plot! And Finland, like always, sent a pretty "dry" kind of comedy.
Number of Horror Movies (?!): 1- Spain

Oscar History: Giuseppe Tornatore, the director of the Italian submission, won the Foreign Film Oscar for "Cinema Paradiso" in 1992. Petter Naess, representing Norway, got an Oscar nomination in 2002 for "Elling". The directors of the Austrian, Finnish, Icelandic, Portuguese and Swedish submissions have all been selected by their countries before, but have not gotten Oscar nominations.

14 of the 18 countries have been nominated before. Portugal, despite submitting films for four decades, has never been nominated. Turkey, which began submitting films in 1989, hasn't had any luck so far. Neither has Luxembourg (now competing for the 6th time) or Ireland (first timer).

Number of Female Dirctors: 3: France (one of two), Greece, Switzerland

Tough Choices: As always, France had the most to choose from, meaning that two Oscar-friendly biopics "La Vie en Rose" and "Moliere" had to be sacrificed to make room for "Persepolis"......Also, Belgium "X"ed " Isabelle Huppert's "Private Property"....Iceland may have chosen "Children" last year, but did not choose its companion piece/sequel "Parents"....Italy's "My Brother Is An Only Child" lost the nom by one vote....Norway was forced to snub Sami-language epic "The Kautokeiro Rebellion" (by another Oscar-nommed director).....And both Sweden & Finland chose not to submit forced-sterilization drama "The New Man", a co-production. And poor Ireland! After years of no Gaelic-language films, this year TWO were produced, forcing Ireland to choose "Kings" over black comedy "Graveyard Clay" for their first-ever submission.

Familiar Faces: Hanna Schygulla is in "Edge of Heaven".....Colm Meaney is in "Kings" (speaking Irish Gaelic!).....Ingvart Eggert Sigurdsson seems to be in nearly every Icelandic film and "Jar City" is no exception. Swedish actor Peter Stormare appears (usually in a towel) in Norway's "Gone With the Woman". And they may not show their faces, but you'll certainly recognize Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux's voices in "Persepolis".

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Pretty damn good! 9 out of 18 (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden; For Ireland "Kings" was my alternate).....The late releases of the films from Belgium & the Netherlands caught me completely by surprise.

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: Switzerland's "old-ladies selling lingerie" box-office smash comedy "Late Bloomers"

Now the countdown:
BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME:
18. You, the Living (Sweden)
17. Duska (The Netherlands)
16. Belle Toujours (Portugal)
15. Eduart (Greece)

Okay....Greece (not nominated since 1978) and Portugal (which, despite nearly 30 submissions, has never been nominated) are used to being in the bottom tier....But it's unusual for The Netherlands and Sweden to be out of the running so early! "You, the Living" is an experimental sort of film- no linear plotline, just a bunch of semi-unrelated vignettes all vaguely connected to the meaning of life...or something. I didn't like Andersson's similar-themed "Songs from the Second Floor", and the Oscar committee will never go for Sweden's "Living" either. Greece's "Eduart" is supposed to be a decent enough film...But this "based-on-a-true -story" tale of redemption about a handsome male Albanian immigrant forced into prostution and who eventually confesses to the murder of an abusive client, is just not supposed to be good enough to be in the running for a nomination. The Netherlands usually knows what Oscar likes....But dark comedy "Duska" has gotten mostly awful reviews and doesn't stand a chance with the competition so tough this year. Portugal's Manoel DeOliveira is now 97 years old and can do whatever he wants. And he wanted to make a sequel to 1967 classic "Belle De Jour". So be it. However, this 70-minute film is likely to confuse those who have not seen (or can't remember ) the 40-year old prequel, and be viewed as sacrilege by those who have. Decent reviews, but not nearly good enough.

ONLY SLIGHTLY MORE LIKELY:

14. Belgium- Ben X
13. Finland- A Man's Job
12- Turkey- Takva, A Man's Fear of God
11. Ireland- Kings
10. Iceland- Jar City
Five well-reviewed films in this tier.....BELGIUM's Ben X won the Grand Prize in Montreal, but this story of adolescent angst about a borderline autistic teen bullied by his classmates and obsessed with video games is unlikely to appeal to Oscar's older voters. TURKEY's religious drama, "Takva", is supposed a deep movie about a quiet and deeply religious man living a peaceful (almost hermetical) life who is promoted to a position of authority in is local mosque. He is then confronted which more "worldly" problems and learns that even the local religious authorities are tainted by the materialism and sinfulness of society. Is it an indictment of organized religion? Is it showing us the folly of blind faith? This films ask all these questions, but offers no easy answers....Probably too deep and divisive for this committee. IRELAND is submitting for the first time with Irish immigrant tale "Kings", about a group of Irish friends who emigrate to London to seek employment and who are reunited years later for the funeral of one of the group. It's based on a play, and this is said to be very apparent in the film-making and screenplay....FINLAND is back in the race after being disqualified last year....not by the Academy but by the diva-esque behaviour of Aki Kaurismaki who asked for his film to be removed from consideration at the last-minute (purposefully timing his announcement so that it was too late for Finland to choose an alternate film). The Finns have made a brave choice, choosing a wry comedy-drama about gender roles, when a buff, 40-something married man turns to prostitution after being laid off from work. Finland's film is reportedly a very good one, though not always easy to watch, as the protagonist becomes involved with a series of unusual "customers". And while the Academy has shown an appreciation for dark "sad" Scandinavian comedy (unfortunately, they chose to honor "The Man Without a Past", one of the worst of the genre), I don't think this will be their year. Still it's one of the films I most want to see on this year's list. ICELAND went with well-reviewed DNA thriller "Jar City". Nobody seems to have a bad word to say about it, but Oscar doesn't usually go for thrillers and I am convinced it is out of the running by one blogger who likened it to a "very good episode of Cold Case". Ouch. If they didn't nominate Iceland's overlooked masterpiece "The Sea" (by the same director) they likely won't go for "Jar City" either.


Dark Horses:
9. The Orphanage (Spain)
8. Small Secrets (Luxembourg)

Now we start to get to the films that have a chance.....Yes, I know that a lot of people are predicting SPAIN's "The Orphanage" to be a LOCK for a nomination, or even win....But I highly doubt it. The film will be lucky if it gets a spot on the 9-film shortlist. Maybe it will. However, remember that although the film got good reviews, it's not nearly as high-profile or as well-liked as last year's Spanish-language horror "Pan's Labyrinth", and horror movies face an uphill battle at the Oscars. Shortlist? Possibly. Nomination? Absolutely not.

As much as people are buzzing about "The Orphanage", I think it will be bested in the voting by one of the list's LEAST buzzed about films- LUXEMBOURG's sleeper coming-of-age story, "Small Secrets". It's definitely got everything this committee usually likes.....Local flavor, cute pre-teens and a lot of nostalgia. In the end, "Secrets" will probably be too "small" for a nomination, but it will probably do a lot better than anyone expects.


TOO LIGHT FOR THE SHORTLIST? COMPETING FOR THE "LIGHT COMEDY" SLOT
7. Gone With the Woman (Norway)
6. Late Bloomers (Switzerland)

In between the stories about surviving the Holocaust, Communism, child abuse, gang violence, Islamic terrorism and the Balkan wars, this committee has still seen fit to nominate light comedies ranging from the brilliant (Amelie) to the inexplicable (Everybody Famous!, which while not a BAD movie by any means, is definitely not an Oscar-caliber film) and somewhere in-between (the boring Elling and the cleverly mean-spirited Zus & Zo). This year, Norway & Switzerland are fighting for the light-comedy slot (along with Lebanon's much-buzzed about beauty salon comedy Caramel). Films like these are fun and probably get very few "super-low" scores from Oscar's panel, unlike some more divisive "love-it-or-hate-it" dramas.

Old ladies selling raunchy underwear! If that intrigues you, you'll probably love Switzerland's "Late Bloomers", starring 87-year old Stephanie Glaser as a widow who becomes the talk of the town wen she opens a lingerie shop in her conservative village. The director of the Oscar-nominated "Elling" Petter Naess returns with a gender-differences comedy about a man who falls in love with a domineering woman. I did not like "Elling" at all- but supposedly Oscar ate it up, perhaps indicating they like this director's style.

DEFINITELY IN WITH A CHANCE: TWO DIFFICULT-TO-CATEGORIZE FILMS FROM THE TWO OSCAR POWERHOUSES
5. Edge of Heaven (Germany)
4. Persepolis (France)
On paper, both of these films should be front-runners, which is why I am ranking them so high. France & Germany have an amazing record in this category (In the past 10 years, Germany managed 2 wins & 5 nominations. France managed 5 nominations plus one shortlisted film). However, deep down, I think that both of them will miss out on the shortlist..... Why?

Germany's "Edge of Heaven" is too bleak and divisive. Germany had a very weak film year, and though this film won awards and critical raves, it is not what Oscar traditionally "likes", and I think Germany knows it. A young German-Turk goes back to the family homeland to find the daughter of his father's mistress. It's possible the committee might bite. We'll see.

France's "Persepolis" has gotten even better reviews, and even more buzz than Germany's film. It's the topical, funny, sad and touching story of a little girl growing up during the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Made by a female Iranian emigre in France, and based on a comic book, it has made Iran furious, and the Iranian Embassy managed to get the film pulled from the Bangkok Film Festival. Other than Teheran's mullahs, people adore it. Its main hurdle is that although it is definitely a film for "adults", it still is very definitely "animated". Can this committee get past that? Or will voters decide to vote for it for Animated Film instead? If any country can do it, it's France....But keep in mind that it's those rare times when France goes "wacky" instead of "traditional" (the sublime musical "8 Women"....lesbian comedy "Gazon Maudit") that they DON'T get nominated. If they can manage to make the shortlist of nine, they could be nominated easily....But that's not a guarantee from a committee that scorned even Miyazaki films.

NOT LOCKS- BUT I PREDICT THEY MAKE THE SHORTLIST
3. DENMARK- The Art of Crying
2. ITALY- La Sconosciuta
Although not as high-profile as "Persepolis" or "Edge", these two films will probably beat them in the rankings.
Italy & Denmark haven't done well in this category lately; in the past 10 years, only 2 noms, (1 win) for Italy, and just one (last year). But historically, they are both strong.
Giuseppe Tornatore already won this award for ITALY with "Cinema Paradiso" in 1989, and there's no reason to believe Oscar has developed a distaste his work. This tale of a mysterious trafficked Ukrainian girl with a secret past who works for a wealthy Italian family is just Oscar's cup of tea.
As for DENMARK, it's one of the best reviewed of a series of coming-of-age drama about precocious teens and pre-teens (also from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cuba, Estonia, France, Indonesia, and Luxembourg and Venezuela). The darker subject matter may turn off some people (as it apparently did with Denmark's brilliant-but-unnominated The Celebration) but I think this film will give Denmark it's second nom in a row. It's the story of an 11-year old in rural Denmark trying to deal with the difficulties of his extremely dysfunctional family.

CLOSEST THING TO A LOCK
1. AUSTRIA- (The Counterfeiters)

From Western Europe (and possibly the whole world), the closest thing to a lock for an Oscar nomination is Austria's "The Counterfeiters". Why?



1. Although reviews were merely "very good" in Europe, American critics have really been loving this story about a group of Jewish prisoners forced by the Nazis to counterfeit foreign currency before the outbreak of WWII. By doing so, they get to live in "luxury" in the prison; if they refuse, they face abuse and more "standard" prison conditions.

2. As is well known, the Oscar Foreign Film committee LOVES movies even remotely related to Nazis and/or World War II. They also love "moral dilemmas" and movies in German.
3. Strong performances and a good story (i.e. what the award SHOULD be given for)
4. I actually don't think this committee thinks in terms of countries or directors being DUE when choosing what score to rate a film (they have to choose a number between 6 and 10). However, Austria is certainly DUE. Despite a burdgeoning film industry, they have only been nominated in this category once, although it is reckoned they have come close on a number of occasions. Probably the closest was Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Inheritors in 1998....by the same director as this film.
NEXT: Coming in December: My favorites! The films from Asia & the Pacific!

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