Sunday, December 21, 2008

2008 Contenders from Western Europe (18 Films)


Although Western Europe won this award for the 43rd time last year for the well-done-but-average Austrian film "The Counterfeiters" (Eastern European films have won 9 times, African films 3 times, and movies from North America, South America and Asia one time each), their traditional dominance was clearly gone- "Counterfeiters" was the only Western European nominee and one of only two W.E. films on the 9-film shortlist.

This year, I expect Western Europe to take about four of the shortlist spots, mostly because of the number of high-profile picks (especially from France, Italy, Sweden and, possibly, Germany) which are sure to benefit from the new two-committee selection rules that go into effect this year.

First, the statistics:

Number of countries invited: 19

Number of countries submitting films: 18

Number of countries opting out: Only Ireland, but they didn't produce any eligible Irish-language features this year.

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

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 19- Arabic (2), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French (3), German (3), Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Welsh + 3 African Languages in the UK Submission. The films from Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the UK are multilingual.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Italy's "Gomorra" which is basically guaranteed a spot on the shortlist both through a committee vote and, if snubbed, will certainly be one of the three wild cards.

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: Greece's poorly reviewed mystery "Correction"

Number of Comedies: Two real comedies (Belgium + Iceland) and two bittersweet "tragicomedies" (Norway and Switzerland).

Oscar History: 15 of the 18 countries have been nominated before....Only Luxembourg, Portugal and Turkey are perpetual strike-outs. The only director with a previous Oscar nomination is the impressive Jan Troell of Sweden, who has been nominated in the Best Foreign Film category three times (last in 1982), PLUS one nomination each in the mainstream categories of Best Director and Best Screenplay. He was selected in 1996 to represent neighboring Denmark (but not nominated). Iceland's Baltasar Kormakur and Austria's Gotz Spielmann have both been put forward twice before, with no luck so far (although Kormakur's "The Sea" clearly deserved a nod back in 2003). The nominees from Norway (Bent Hamer) and Turkey (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) were also in contention once before, when they competed against each other for the 2004 Oscars.

Number of Female Directors: Just one- the Netherlands' Dana Nechushtan

Tough Choices: As usual, France had the toughest choice this year, with "The Class" being selected over Catherine Deneuve's "A Christmas Tale", Cesar Best Picture Winner "The Secret of the Grain", and potential Best Actress nominee "I've Loved You For So Long". Among the other high-profile films not selected: Belgium snubbed "The Silence of Lorna" by the infamous Dardennes Brothers, Denmark did not choose the pre-nominee favorite, WWII drama "Flame and Citron", Germany ignored "Cherry Blossoms", Italy was forced to dump the political intrigue of "Il Divo", and Norway made the unusual move not to submit the work of a former Oscar nominee, the Sami-language historical drama "The Kautokeino Rebellion".

Familiar Faces: The most recognizable stars come from Germany and Spain. You probably know the names of Moritz Bleibteau (Run Lola Run, Das Experiment) and Maribel Verdu (Pan's Labyrinth, Y Tu Mama Tambien) and you probably know the faces of Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others) and Raul Arevalo (Talk to Her). Not many other stars this year, although Kati Outinen (the "muse" of Aki Kaurismaki) co-stars in the Finnish entry and British rugby star Shane Williams has a cameo in the UK entry.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 7. Austria, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, although I came close with Finland, Italy, Norway and Portugal.

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: Icelandic farce "White Night Wedding".

18. GREECE- "Correction"
17. PORTUGAL- "Our Beloved Month of August"

Perpetual also-rans Greece (last nominated in 1978) and Portugal are out of luck again this year. Greece's "Correction" is a convoluted and confusing mystery that has been described as boring by every review I have read, and every person I know who has seen it agrees. Portugal's film is a lengthy (2 and a half hours) docudrama about a rural summer festival that blurs the line between reality and fiction. Even the glowing review from "Variety" noted that the film would "inspire some walkouts...wherever it plays". Both films are out of their league. Better luck next year.

16. ICELAND- "White Night Wedding
15. LUXEMBOURG- "Nuits d'Arabie"
14. FINLAND- "Home of Dark Butterflies"
13. THE NETHERLANDS- "Dunya & Desie"
12. UNITED KINGDOM- "Hope Eternal"

These five films have garnered largely positive reviews, but haven't gotten sufficiently positive notice to have a real chance at an Oscar nomination. A lot of people love Iceland's screwball wedding farce "White Night Wedding", about a wedding that everyone agrees shouldn't happen, and I for one can't wait to see it. However, just as many people dislike it and this category isn't usually kind to comedies, relegating it to the bottom tier. Finland's reform-school drama "Home of Dark Butterflies" and Luxembourg's thriller "Nuits d'Arabie" (Arabian Nights), about a man who falls for a mysterious Arab woman aboard a train, are both supposed to be good-but-not-great films. The Dutch entry, the girl-power road movie "Dunya and Desie", has gotten the best reviews of these five, and the Netherlands is traditionally a power in this category...but I simply can't believe that a movie based on a TV soap/sitcom will be honored in this category. The British (Welsh) submission, "Hope Eternal" is somewhat of a mystery....It's barely made a blip internationally, and very few people have seen it....That's not a good sign. The film is a drama set mostly in Africa and featuring a cast mostly of women, about the doomed romance of a Welsh doctor and an African nurse, and her escape to Britain after his death. The only review I've read of the film described as well-meaning but predictable. With 67 countries in play, I think all of these films can be counted out.


11. TURKEY- "Three Monkeys"
10. BELGIUM- "Eldorado"
9. NORWAY- "O'Horten"
8. SWITZERLAND- "Der Freund"

I'll say it again...with 67 films in play, there is A LOT of competition for the nine spots on the shortlist. All four of these films have their supporters, but I think they are all too "small" to make the top tier of films. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's films are said to be an acquired taste; I saw "Distant" several years ago and hated it. "Three Monkeys", a treatise on guilt about a politician who pays an underling to go to jail for him after killing a man while driving, is supposed to be just as good a film, and somewhat more accessible but it still contains enough slow-pans and dialogue-less scenes to frustrate Oscar voters. "Eldorado", a Belgian road comedy about a man who gives a lift to a drug addict who tried to steal his car, is a well-liked film but is probably too quirky to make the list. Some people are predicting Norway's "O'Horten", a dry Scandinavian comedy about a retired railroad employee, for an Oscar nod, and it may well appeal to Oscar's older voters...but reviews, while always positive, generally point out the film is fairly lightweight. Switzerland's "The Friend" takes a very original idea- a beautiful young singer gets a socially inept schlub to pretend to be her boyfriend for a family dinner and promptly dies with the family still believing they were a loving couple- and does it well! "Der Freund" will rank well in this field, but I still think it's too quiet a film to place in the Top Nine.

The bland quality of "O'Horten" might appeal to the larger committee and the dark, brooding filmmaking of "Three Monkeys" and quirky originality of "Eldorado" and "Der Freund" might appeal to the smaller, elite committee, but I think all four of these will be also-rans.


7. DENMARK- "Worlds Apart"
6. SPAIN- "Blind Sunflowers"

Denmark and Spain both have good records in this category. I don't think either film can get an Oscar nomination, but they both have an outside chance at the shortlist if Oscar voters identify with their films. "Worlds Apart", a based-on-a-true story of a family of Jehovah's Witnesses whose teenaged daughter falls for a non-believer. "Blind Sunflowers" is a period drama set after the Spanish Civil War. However, these two films suffer from opposite problems. Spain's film is supposed to be visually beautiful with superb production values and excellent acting....but is also said to be melodramatic and just a bit boring. Denmark's star-crossed romance is said to be a fascinating story...but the film is "small" in scale with weak supporting actors. With a lot of behind-the-scenes (non-actors) people on the committee, expect Spain to beat out Denmark slightly for the race to 9th place.


5. AUSTRIA- "Revanche"
4. GERMANY- "Der Baader Meinhof Komplex"

I'm confused as to where to put the two German-language thrillers, and both have more supporters than I ever expected. Austria's "Revanche", a taut thriller about fate, revenge, sex and violence, is a critical darling, favored by festival critics and bloggers worldwide. I'm looking forward to seeing it myself, but the graphic sex and dark tone of the film has led to some negative reviews...It will have its supporters to be sure, but I don't think it will make it. As for terrorist drama, "Der Baader Meinhof Komplex", it's an action thriller that has garnered no awards and little critical acclaim. I've heard it variously described as confusing, pretentious and overlong....and yet it still got a Golden Globe nomination. I don't understand! It's said to be very much a "Hollywood" type of film, and that doesn't typically do well here. Other than high production values, this film doesn't seem to have much going for it. I'm ranking it high as I am because, for reasons I can't understand, it does seem to have a large base of support, and Germany has had a great record in the last 5 years....2 wins (Nowhere in Africa & The Lives of Others), one nomination (Downfall) and one near-nomination (Goodbye, Lenin!, the best of the four).


3. FRANCE- "Entre les Murs" (The Class)
2. SWEDEN- "Everlasting Moments"

I'm fairly confident that these two films will make the shortlist this year. France and Sweden are always good bets, and both of these films have received strong notices. Sweden's "Everlasting Moments" sounds excrutiatingly dull- an battered housewife receives a camera and finds joy in life through the art of photography- but the film has gotten universally perfect reviews, a Golden Globe nomination and (as mentioned above) the director Jan Troell has a history of charming Oscar. It has a good shot with both the large and small committee. France can never be counted out, and "Entre les Murs", about a multi-racial inner-city school, is supposed to be a really great film. I tried to see it in NYC, but unfortunately it only played a one-week engagement. I actually DON'T think the large committee will rank the film in their top six (winners of the Cannes Golden Palm are cursed here), but I do think that the more elite committee will choose it. Expect Sweden & France to be called for the shortlist, and both have a chance at an Oscar nod.

1. ITALY- "Gomorra"

The closest thing to a lock for an Oscar nomination this year is Italy's Neapolitan mob saga "Gomorra". It's gotten great reviews and won many awards (Golden Globe nom; both Entertainment Weekly reviewers named it one of the Top Ten of the year) and Italy has won the award more than any country (including France). Will Gomorra's extreme violence and confusing multi-story plotlines alienate Oscar's older-skewing committee? Maybe. They nominated "Amores Perros" but rejected "City of God" ....But it doesn't matter. If it's snubbed by the main committee, the elite committee will be sure to choose it, if only to avoid the embarrassment of the next-day headlines of another "Four Months"-style snub. It's A LOCK.

Later this week, we'll look at the 18 films from ASIA.....

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 Contenders from The Americas and Africa (12 Films)


With 67 national submissions, this year is a record-breaker. That's why it's strange that the number of Latin American submissions has fallen dramatically- only seven this year, the lowest since 2000. Because it's so low, this entry will look at all the films from North America, South America and Africa. African countries submitted a measly four films, which was still good enough to tie the record set in 2004.

Now let's see if we can figure out which of the national submissions will make the 9-film shortlist in January.

Today, let's look at the 12 African and American contenders:

First, the statistics:

Number of countries invited: 17 from the Americas, and 10 from Africa

Number of countries submitting films: 8 from the Americas, and 4 from Africa

Number of countries opting out: 9 from the Americas- Bolivia, Cuba, Peru and Puerto Rico (who usually send films) as well as Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua (who usually don't). 6 from Africa- Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Kinshasa, Tanzania and Tunisia (none of which have sent films more than twice). Bolivia and Puerto Rico both made formal announcements noting that they had wanted to enter the competition. Bolivia said none of their films met technical requirements and Puerto Rico basically said they had no good films (Reggaeton musical "Talento de Barrio" wanted the nod). The most surprising absence was Cuba which had submitted films five of the last six years and had a lot to choose from, including "El Cuerno de la Abundancia" which I was rooting for. I also expected Costa Rica ("El Camino") and Guatemala ("Gasolina") to return.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Only 4

Number of Languages Represented: 8: 6 films in Spanish, 3 films all or partly in Arabic, 3 films partly in French, plus one each in Portuguese (Brazil), Inuktikut (Canada) and Xhosa, Afrikaans and Zulu (South Africa)

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Argentina's prison drama "Leonera"

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: Venezuela's low-budget drag queen story, "The Colour of Fame"

Number of Comedies: 2 - Algeria and Colombia

Oscar History: Brazil's Bruno Barreto was nominated for the mediocre "Four Days in September in 1998.

Number of Female Directors: Zero.

Tough Choices: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Egypt and Mexico all had especially competitive races. Most surprising omissions were both Youssef Chahine's "Chaos" and terrorist drama "Baby Doll's Night", which didn't make the cut for Egypt and "Parque Via" and "Lake Tahoe", which didn't get the nod for Mexico. Also out: the latest works by Oscar nominees Deepa Mehta (Canada's "Heaven and Earth") and Walter Salles (Brazil's "Line of Passage"). "Passage" would have had a good chance but Salles withdrew it from contention.

Familiar Faces:
The most familiar star is Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro's co-starring lead role in Argentina's "Leonera". Fans of arthouse may recognize the eponymous star of "Atanarjuat" in "The Necessities of Life"

Number of countries I predicted correctly:
I only got one nominee correct (Argentina) and two of my choices were runner-ups (Chile and Colombia). I was pretty surprised by most of these choices.

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: Easily's Algeria's dark horse comedy "Mascarades".


12. VENEZUELA- The Color of Fame (El Tinte de la Fama)
11. URUGUAY- "Kill Them All" (Matar a Todos)
10. COLOMBIA- "Dog Eat Dog" (Perro Come Perro)
9. EGYPT- "The Island"

For various reasons, these four films were basically out-of-the-running before they even screened. Uruguay selected a serious drama about human rights violations during the 1970s military dictatorships....This may have worked for "The Official Story" (the only Latin American film to ever win this award), but the film is not supposed to be very good. Venezuela's pick is a low-budget drama about a Marilyn Monroe lookalike contest, featuring an aspiring actress and a drag queen, with a good story but low production values. Colombia and Egypt have chosen popular thrillers that are probably better suited to win at the box office than to the Oscar awards committee. Colombia's "Dog Eat Dog" is a violent-comedy-thriller has been compared to Tarantino, by those who like it, and said to lack substance by those who don't. Egypt's choice, "The Island", about a community of Central Egyptians making their living from the drug and arms trade in Cairo...It was a box-office success at home, but it's still a genre film, and unlikely to score here.


8. MOROCCO- "Adieu Meres"
7. SOUTH AFRICA- "Jerusalema"
6. CHILE- "Tony Manero"
5. BRAZIL- "Last Stop 174"

With 67 films in competition, 58 are destined to be also-rans. These four films simply don't have enough people who love them enough to get them to the shortlist stage. Morocco's film is a somewhat melodramatic yet topical and well-reviewed film on interfaith friendship between a Jewish and a Muslim family in the 1960s . South Africa has returned to the competition for the first time since winning this award a few years back with "Tsotsi", and they appear to be channeling that film with crime drama "Jerusalema". It's said to be a good movie, but everyone also compares it (usually somewhat unfavorably) to "Tsotsi". Chile's violent, sexual serial killer drama "Tony Manero" is said to be a very good film, albeit one that is extremely difficult to watch. This committee will hate it. Brazil's "Last Stop 174" is figuring on some blogger's list of predictions, but this dramatization of the real life incidents (also featured in the documentary "Bus 174", which was snubbed for an Oscar nomination in 2004) has gotten very mixed reviews. Although Barreto was nominated 10 years back (for the very mediocre "Four Days in September"), I really don't see Brazil making the shortlist this year.


4. MEXICO- "Arrancame la Vida"

3. ALGERIA- "Mascarades"

2. CANADA- Add Image- "The Necessities of Life"

Algeria, Canada and Mexico all have a good track record in this category, with multiple nominations in the past twenty years. These three films should all be in the Top 15, and one or two should be able to make the shortlist. But which ones? Canada's film is a drama about an Inuit hunter who is transplanted to a hospital in Quebec city after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. A sick Inuit boy helps him to adjust to his surroundings and translated between Inuit and French for him. Cute children, good story and excellent reviews. Mexico's nominee is an expensive period drama set in the 1930s, which begins with the marriage of a beautiful teenage bride to a high-level general. More style than substance perhaps, but still considered a strong film. Algeria's film is a gentle comedy about a man, tired of being embarrassed that his beautiful but eccentric sister is the laughing stock of the village, who begins to brag that he has arranged for a rich, handsome foreigner to wed his sister. Not many people are talking about it, but everyone who has seen it seems to love it, which may (hopefully) mean a lot of high-ranking votes. I'm rooting for Algeria, but Canada appears to have the best chance in this field, with the exception of:
1. ARGENTINA- "Leonera"
More than a standard "woman-in-prison" drama, "Leonera" (Lion's Den) is the story of a young pregnant woman who commits a crime of passion and is sentenced to prison where she gives birth and raises her child. It play like a checklist of the Foreign Oscar Commitee's "likes". It's got cute kids, is "issue-oriented", it's sentimental but not "soft", and it's gotten very good reviews and racked up a reputation of being a quality film. Although I was less than impressed by the director's "Familia Rodante" a few years back, this is described as a much more emotionally powerful film, and stands an excellent chance at an Oscar nomination.
That's it for Group 1....Next week, we'll look at the 18 contenders from Western Europe.