Well, it's that time of year again.....Next week, AMPAS will invite about one-hundred countries around the world to send in their best films of the year to compete for the Best Foreign Film award at the Academy Awards...This category has had its ups and downs, and I must confess that I never agree with the films that the Oscar committee chooses, no matter which system they use....However, some of the best foreign films I've ever seen, I've encountered solely because they were on the Oscar LONGLIST....which is why I try and see as many as I can each year. (I just saw Slovakia's "Return of the Storks" last month, which was submitted two years ago, and it made me remember why I love foreign films).
Anyway, congratulations to AMPAS for choosing "Departures" from Japan last year after years of mostly snubbing Asian films for the same dreary dramas from Europe year after year. I haven't seen any of the other nominated films yet, but I think they made the right choice.
Up till now, there have been exactly 100 countries that have participated in the Oscar race, so I've divided them up into groups of 25. Here are my predictions for the countries from the former Eastern bloc. All of them submitted films to the competition last year except for Armenia (last submission: 2003), Belarus (1996), Mongolia (2005) and Tajikistan (2005).
1. ALBANIA has submitted three times, most recently last year. This year, they have a few suitable options, the most likely of which is “Time of the Comet”, a large-scale historical drama (in German and Albanian) about the establishment of an independent Albania circa WWI, and the installation of a German nobleman as King. Neck-in-neck are three smaller-scale dramas- “Alive”, about a young man escaping a blood feud (Karlovy Vary) “East, West, East” (by the director of “Slogans”, probably the most internationally successful Albanian film), about an Albanian cycling team visiting Italy during the 1991 Revolution, and “Provincial Chronicle”, about life in provincial Albania.
2. ARMENIA was one of only three European countries that did not submit a film last year (the others were Belarus, and Ireland which had no eligible films). That may change this year as they entered the Cannes Film Market for the first time. Their most likely choice is probably “Bonded Parallels”, a co-production with Norway featuring two parallel stories (one set in WWII; the other modern-day), and which featured in the main lineup in Moscow. If they want a more standard storyline, they could choose “Return of the Prodigal Son”, a family drama which played out of competition at Moscow. They also have odd docudrama “Border”, a wordless story of life in a refugee camp seen through the eyes of a cow. We should have a better idea after their Golden Apricot Film Festival takes place.
3. AZERBAIJAN has submitted (poorly-received) films to Oscar for the past two years. This year, they’re sure to send “40th Door”, the first Azerbaijani film to compete in a major Film Festival outside the former USSR- in this case Karlovy Vary and Shanghai. The film is a drama about a 14-year old who moves alone to the big city after his father is murdered by the Mafia. Being produced by the national film studio doesn’t hurt either.
4. BELARUS last submitted a film for Oscar consideration way back in 1996 (when they reportedly came close to a nomination). They clearly don’t care much for this competition, but they could potentially send “Cadet”, an intriguing mystery/revenge-drama set in Post-WWII Belarus, and produced by the national film studio. It’s said to be the best film produced in Belarus in years.
5. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA has had a relatively slow year. This year’s biggest Bosnian film, Denis Tanovic’ “Triage”, looks like it will have too much English, so I’ll predict “On the Road” (Na Putu), a relationship drama in which an alchoholic husband turns to Islam; it’s by the director of “Grbavica”. Also quite likely: “Bare Skin”, about a young woman taking care of an abandoned boy after the Bosnian war, “Blue Orchestra”, the biography of a famous local band, and “Nightguards”, about a Serbian furniture store, which is the only film that has actually premiered. Look for August’s Sarajevo Film Festival to herald which film is the best.
6. BULGARIA's nominee is up for grabs. My guess is that they go with anti-Mafia drama “Crayfish”, which played in competition at Moscow. Also very likely: three surreal films, “Forecast”, a movie that is kindasorta about the conflicts in the Balkans, “The Goat”, which opened the Sofia Film Festival and which features a philosophical goat that thinks out loud and “A Farewell to Hemingway”, a nightmarish film set in the 1920s….None will likely appeal much to the Foreign Oscar committee in the US (especially “The Goat”), but they may be able to muster some support at home. Other possibilities: violent skinhead drama “Eastern Plays”, WWI drama “War Correspondent”, “15”, a collection of short films by popular Bulgarian directors, and “Moon Lake” a yet-to-be-released film based on the story of Orpheus & Eurydice. It should also be noted that last year, they picked a film that was released right before the deadline, so there may be others out there. Final prediction: “Crayfish”, followed (in order) by “Forecast”, “Moon Lake”, “Plays” followed by unwise choices, “Hemingway” and “Goat”.
7. CROATIA typically chooses its nominee from among the premieres at the Pula Film Festival. Part of the reason for this is that Croatian films rarely get screened anywhere else! Aside from the odd success (like “A Wonderful Night in Split”), Croatian films rarely make it outside the Balkans. This year, they had a rare film in competition at a major festival (Moscow) so the most likely selection for the Oscars is “Metastases”, a film about young war veterans and alcoholics wasting their lives away in modern-day Zagreb. It’s by Branko Schmidt who has been selected twice before (1994 and 2001) and it sounds just awful. The other nine Croatian films at Pula (a new record) are a mystery. We should have a good idea of what Croatians like and dislike when the awards are given out late in July. The most promising are “Zagreb Tales”, a series of nine short stories about life in the capital and “The Man Under the Table”, a series of stories about village life. These multi-string dramas seem to be a favorite topic of Eastern European filmmakers (virtually every Balkan country has sent one of these multi-character dramas in the past ten years, including Croatia). Others in with a shot: “Penelope”, based on the Greek myth of Odysseus’ wife, romantic comedy “I Believe in Angels”, and war drama “The Blacks”. Less likely: “In the Land of Wonders”, “Closeless”, “The Donkey” and “Love Life of a Sluggard”, in that order.
8. THE CZECH REPUBLIC's submission last year was a disaster. I fell asleep so many times during "The Karamazovs" that I gave up trying to follow it. This is a so-so year for the Czechs…they don’t have a single film in competition at their own festival in Karlovy Vary. This year, I think they’ll choose “Operation Danube”, starring Oscar-winning director Jiri Menzel, about unexpected friendships between invading Polish troops (invading on Russian orders) and the Czech inhabitants of a border town. Sounds baity and just what Oscar likes (and also like Korea’s “Welcome to Dongmakgol”, which I loved). I think it’s pretty much way ahead of everything else. In second and third place- “TMA”, about a man’s return to his small hometown and “Shameless”, described as an “unromantic comedy” by Oscar-nominated director Jan Hrebejk (but with middling reviews). Rounding out the Top Five: “Who’s Afraid of the Wolf”, a well-reviewed family film based on Little Red Riding Hood, and “English Strawberries”, about the Soviet Invasion of 1968 from the perspectives of a Russian soldier and a Czech farmer who both wish to emigrate. Less likely: sympathetic Romany (Gypsy) drama “El Paso”, “Guard No. 47”, about a WWI veteran, serial killer drama “Angels Gone”, box-office hit comedy “You Kiss Like a God” and Slovak coproduction “My Husband’s Women”.
9. ESTONIA has the strongest film industry and the best films of any of the Baltic Republics. This year, the most likely submission is “December Heat”, a historical drama with lots of period music, about a attempted Communist coup d’etat in the 1920s. In second place, “The Temptation of St. Tony”, a moral drama about an esteemed man who finds himself facing a number of ethical dilemmas. In third: “Vasha”, a revenge drama about an Estonian teen who meets a Chechen immigrant hellbent on avenging the death of his family. In fourth: “Disco & Atomic War” a quirky documentary by a previously submitted director.
10. GEORGIA has two main contenders this year. Do they go with sentimental and traditional? If so, look no further than Nana Djordjadze’s latest “The Rainbowmaker”. Djordjadze gave Georgia their only nomination (back in 1996) and her latest is about a man who returns home from jail to find his children unwilling to accept him…since they had been told their dad was a secret agent on a spy mission. If they want to be political and controversial (which got them thrown out of Eurovision this year…), they could go with “The Other Bank”, which has played at more festivals, and which tells the story of child refugees from the Abkhazia conflict. Less likely: “Conflict Zone” about the Caucasus wars. It’s a tough choice….I say Nana wins.
11. HUNGARY made their official Oscar announcement months ahead of the deadline for some reason. They’ve designated “Chameleon”, about a con artist who takes advantage of lonely women but who ends up falling for his latest victim. I never would have chosen it….I’m fairly certain I would have predicted “Father’s Acre” (pictured here) about a father-son relationship after the dad returns home from a long stint in prison. It won the Foreign Critics Award at Hungarian Film Week, whereas “Chameleon” won the Internet People’s Choice Award. “Lost Times”, about a man who turns to smuggling to help support his handicapped sister, won the Best Picture award.
12. KAZAKHSTAN has submitted three years in a row, achieving one Oscar nomination for “Mongol” and two (reputedly) near misses for “Nomad” and “Tulpan”. This year, it’s a two-way race between two well-received dramas set in the Communist era. “The Gift to Stalin” is a drama about a little boy growing up in post WWII Soviet Kazakhstan, while “Goodbye, Gulsary!” is a drama which covers an even wider range of history, from WWII until the fall of the USSR. Possible spoiler: surreal fantasy “Baksy” and the upcoming steppe love story “Kelin”. Unlikely: comedy “Songs from the Southern Seas” (a great film but I think it was released last year).
13. KYRGYZSTAN is said to have come very close to an Oscar nomination on two occasions, but so far no luck. This year, the most likely choice is the Russian-language “We Love Our Skies”, by two-time Aktan Arym Kubat (aka Aktan Abdykalykov). Automatic translators are a little sketchy, but I believe it’s about adolescent love. Ernest Abdyzhaparov’s “Love Thief” would appear just as possible, but he doesn’t seem to have the right connections with the Kyrgyz Academy…Two of his films have been ignored before during years when Kyrgyzstan sent nothing at all.
14. LATVIA has sent two films for Oscar consideration- in 1993 and 2008. They don’t have much this year, but they could potentially send hit comedy “Little Robbers”, or upcoming releases “Death to You” or “The Hunt” . They have a big costume drama in the works (“Rudolf’s Gold”) that will surely be sent next year. We’ll see if Latvia is really interested in this category of if last year was a fluke. “Robbers” got good notices, while the other two are unknown quantities. Mark me down for “Robbers”.
15. LITHUANIA has submitted two films in the past, including last year. This year, I think they’ll go with “Farewell”, the story of a young divorced sailor who returns to his hometown to say goodbye to his loved ones, after learning that he has terminal cancer. Runner-up: “Low Lights” about urban ennui, which played at Karlovy Vary. Less likely: “Rigoletto”, a Lithuanian re-telling of the Verdi opera of the same name, “Waterhole”, a black & white drama a man living during the Soviet occupation, and the abysmal drama “Perpetuum Mobile”, which I’ve seen and can confirm is a pointless plotless film- the worst of European arthouse.
16. MACEDONIA doesn’t appear to have any features released this year, so far. “Wingless”, a co-production with the Czech Republic, could be submitted if it’s not too Czech. If the Macedonians are desperate, they could send “Some Other Stories”, a co-production between five of the Yugoslav republics featuring five separate stories. It hardly qualifies as a majority-Macedonian production though. Maybe they’ll have something premiere at Sarajevo.
17. MONGOLIA has submitted twice, both times with docudramas featuring cute animals and even cuter children. Both were directed by Oscar nominee Byambasuren Davaa, and both are reputed to have come close to being nominated. Her new film, “Two Horses of Genghis Khan”, will premiere at the Locarno Film Festival and will be sure to get the Mongolian Oscar nod IF it gets a domestic release before the deadline. If not, they may opt to submit historical drama “A Pearl in the Forest” (Moilkhon), whose trailer looks quite pretty on Youtube.
18. POLAND has few strong candidates this year, and the race should more or less boil down to four films; “33 Scenes From Life” won the Jury Prizes at the Polish and Locarno Film Festivals as well as Best Picture at this year’s Polish Oscars, “Before Twilight” features a cast of some of Poland’s most esteemed elderly actors and actresses, many over 90 years old, “Little Moscow” won Best Picture at the Polish Film Festival, and “Sweet Rush” is the latest film from 83-year old Andrzej Wajda (who directed four out of Poland’s eight Oscar nominations). “Sweet Rush”, a docudrama in which some people play themselves, is the favorite on paper but reviews have been mixed and its not a big-scale production like “Katyn”, which got Poland’s first Oscar nod in 20 years in 2008. Also blurring the line between fiction and reality are the senior citizens of “Before Twilight” who act out a version of “Faust”. However, the Oscar committee won’t have the slightest clue who most of these esteemed actors are. “33 Scenes” is a drama about a woman having a particulary bad week (a scenario that is better as a comedy). With all these problemns, I predict they choose inter-cultural romantic drama “Little Moscow” set against the background of the 1960s, with “Sweet Rush” as an alternate. Dark horses: “Drowsiness”, about a narcoleptic actress, and biographic drama “General Nil”. None of these are any threat for a real Oscar nod so it’s certainly possible they could choose something else that premieres later in the year.
19. ROMANIA hasn’t had any luck with Oscar yet, but they surely will sooner or later- Romania is hot on the film festival circuit right now, even if most films can’t sell any tickets at home. This year’s submission is pretty likely to be “Tales From the Golden Age”, an anthology of absurdist stories from Communist times, which is written and co-produced by Cristian Mungiu (he also directed one of the stories) whose “4 Months” was so publicly snubbed two years ago. I think that’s pretty likely to be their choice. Dark horses include: (in order of possibility) “Gruber’s Journey” a jet-black farce about an Italian journalist in Nazi-controlled Romania, “Police Adjective”, a hit on the festival circuit about a good cop in a corrupt world, “Silent Wedding”, about a secret engagement under Communism times and “Pa-ra-da”, about a French man who helps take of Romanian street children. Less likely: tragicomedy “The Happiest Girl in the World”, tragic homecoming drama “Weekend With My Mother”, British coproduction “Katalin Varga” and “Carol I”, a flop historical drama by Sergiu Nicolescu (who has represented Romania five times).
20. RUSSIA, as usual, has a number of good films that assure a competitive race. Last year’s “MERMAID” was supposed to possibly THE most entertaining film of the competition. I’m so upset that it did not (yet) get a US release because I’m dying to see it! It may be the only time Russia has ever (or will ever) select a comedy. This year’s likely nominee is “Tsar”, an expensive historical drama about the reign of Ivan the Terrible, which recently opened the 2009 Moscow Film Festival. In second place is “Admiral”, another historical drama touted as the most expensive Russian film ever made (allegedly displacing “War and Peace”), and telling the story of a previously vilified anti-Bolshevik war hero. Rounding out the Top Five are: “Paper Soldier”, by previously submitted director Alexsei German Jr., about a doctor treating cosmonauts in the Russian space program (it was well-received at Venice), “Wolfy”, a small-scale drama about an abusive mother and her daughter living in a remote Russian province (it swept the major awards at Kinotavr), and “Room and a Half”, a colorful biography about one of Russia’s great poets. Two notable dark horses: “Morphine” is probably too small a film to be chosen, but it was written by the late, great Sergei Bodrov Jr., and features a skilled young doctor who becomes addicted to morphine in Soviet Siberia circa 1918. "Pete on the Way to Heaven", about a village idiot, won the Golden St. George at the Moscow Film Festival. “Burnt by the Sun 2” still has no release date, but this sequel to the 1995 winner will definitely be a contender when it finally gets released. Others with a minor shot: “The Fly”, another provincial drama won Best Picture at Shanghai, “Ward No. 6” is a depressing drama based on a Chekhov story, “The Vanished Empire” features a love triangle in Soviet Russia, and “Kromov” is about an honest Soviet soldier.
21. SERBIA's selection of the nationalist “St. George Shoots the Dragon” would seem a foregone conclusion- the film got good reviews, state support, and is one of the most expensive films in Serbian (or Yugoslav) history. However, Serbian cinema has had a good year this year, and it’s possible one of the more unknown films might squeak through if it really impresses the Serbian Academy. The biggest threat would appear to be US-coproduction “Here and There”, about Serbians in NYC and New Yorkers in Serbia, except that I believe it has too much English to qualify (it co-stars Cyndi Lauper after all), and Goran Paskaljevic’s controversial new film “Honeymoon in Albania” could also contend in the unlikely event it’s released before October 1st. Dark horses include “The Ambulance”, about Yugoslav’s recent history as seen through a local ambulance brigade, “Devil’s Town”, a multi-character drama, “Ordinary People” (Cannes), a hyper-realistic, violent war drama, “Project”, a black comedy about a deadbeat family trying to keep their dying grandmother alive for the sake of her pension and “Woman With the Broken Nose”, about how a mother’s suicide affects the lives of three bystanders. Less likely: “Wounded Eagle”, set between the two World Wars, émigré-drama “Jelena, Katarina, Marija”, small-town drama “White, White World”, action-thriller “Belgrade Phantom”, and “Early Frost”, which is set in the autonomous region of Vojvodina. Lazar Ristovski is always a good-luck charm…He has co-starred in five of Serbia’s past 15 submissions. This year, that means “St. George” or “Devil’s Town”. My Top Five predictions: “St. George”, “Ambulance”, “Town”, “People”, “Here and There” (risky) and alternate “Nose”.
22. SLOVAKIA's film industry is doing really well lately. (http://www.variety.com/%20article/VR1118004881.html?) but they keep sending great movies to this competition without getting recognized (“King of Thieves”, “Landscape” and especially “Return of the Storks” were really good films that didn't get nominated). This year is probably a showdown between “Soul at Peace”, a tragic drama about a man who is released from prison which represented Slovakia at Karlovy Vary...and “Broken Promise”, a historical drama about a Jewish family in Slovakia between the two World Wars. The Slovaks remember well that their only Oscar winner was the Slovak-language Czechoslovak production “The Shop on Main Street” so they’ll probably go with “Broken Promise”. Dark horse: “Cooking History”, a documentary about army cooks….but Slovakia didn’t have much luck with a documentary this year so don’t count on it.
UPDATE: Líštičky has just been released and has easily made this a three-way race. The film looks really good and stands a good chance at getting the nod. I'm not changing my prediction, but it may get it.
23. SLOVENIA's likely submission is “Landscape No. 2”, an “unconventional thriller” about two thieves, foreign intrigue and a stolen painting. It swept many of the major awards at last year’s Slovenian Film Festival, including Best Picture. If it premieres in time, “Slovenka” about a successful young woman who works part-time as a prostitute will likely get the nod, but I don’t think it will….Count on it for next year. Also possible: “Life”, a comedy-drama about teenage life…it won the Jury Award last year against “Landscape No. 2”. Less likely: thriller “Transition”, and dreary domestic violence drama “Forever”
24. TAJIKISTAN has made some great movies in the past (my favorite of the three I have seen is “Luna Papa”). They could submit "True Noon", which debuted in August in Dushanbe and will premiere internationally at the Pusan Film Festival.
25. UKRAINE showed off only three new films at the Cannes Film Market, and they have a fourth film in contention at the Moscow Film Festival. However, I think they’ll go with “Birds of Paradise”, about Soviet-era repression, which I also predicted would represent Ukraine last year. However, it seems it premiered after the Oscar deadline. In second place: “The Tearing Away” and in third, Kira Muratova’s “Melody for a Barrel Organ”, about two orphans. Less likely, “The Day of Won” and “When I Wake Up”, two unknown quantities who were represented at the Cannes Film Market, plus impotence comedy “Love in the Big City”, which is a Russian coproduction set in New York City.
The most likely Eastern Bloc country to send a film for the first time is tiny MONTENEGRO (population: 800,000) which gained its independence from Serbia in 2006. It's possible they may send psychological thriller “Look at Me” (Gledaj me), a film about domestic violence, which appears to be the first feature made since independence (thus making it easy to choose!). Also possible: UZBEKISTAN’s “Silence” (Sukunat), a sad story about a popular actress who learns she is going deaf could represent the country for the first time (it featured in Moscow), as could “The Yurt” a drama set in the 1980s against the backdrop of the Soviet Afghan War.
Most likely to submit a film : Hungary entered the race months before the deadline...Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia and Serbia have sent films ever year for the past ten years and will surely participate again this year.
Least likely to submit a film at all: Tajikistan, followed by Mongolia.
Most likely to get a nomination at this early stage: Slovakia's Jewish interest drama "Broken Promise" followed by Kazakhstan and Russia, and maybe Romania and Czech Republic.
Next week will be the 25 predictions from Asia.