Wednesday, November 4, 2009


The Eastern European republics have submitted 17 films this year....It's difficult to believe that in 1991, there were only eight countries that existed in the region!. Last year, the ex-Communist countries were snubbed entirely, despite strong contenders from Poland, Romania and Russia. This year, the list can basically be divided into two halves- half the films are clearly out of their league and will have little to no chance at getting an Oscar nomination....The other half the films are real threats, and it will be really difficult to figure out which of these will resonate with the Oscar committee and which ones will not.

17. ARMENIA- Autumn of the Magician What to say? This film has so many strikes against it....The film is a a "short film" (only 50 minutes long), not a feature....The film is a documentary, not fiction....And it's boring. Honestly, it's gotten good reviews at documentary film festivals, but I had never heard of the subject (89-year old Tonino Guerra) and had never seen any of his films....The film buffs on the Oscar committee will likely be more moved than I was, but it stands no chance at a nomination. Armenia should have chosen "Bonded Parallels" instead. Anyway, if you want to see the film, it's available online (for 3 euros) so you can watch it and judge for yourself like I did:


16. MACEDONIA- "Wingless"
15. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "Nightguards"
14. CROATIA- "Donkey"
13. SERBIA- "St. George Shoots the Dragon"

These four films from the former Yugoslavia are all destined to be also-rans....None of them have won any major awards, and none have gotten better-than-average reviews. The Bosnians have chosen a comedy-drama "Nightguards" about a number of quirky characters, including security guards at a furniture store, one of whom thinks he's pregnant. The Croatians have chosen "Donkey", a drama about a family reunion at the end of the Yugoslav wars and the donkey that witnesses family secrets being revealed. It couldn't even manage Best Croatian Film at Croatia's National Film Awards (The Pula Film Festival National Competition). The Macedonians had no Macedonian-language films this year, so they had to choose the only film that was eligible- the Czech-language coproduction, "Wingless". Despite an interesting plot- a Czech man is prophesized to die at the age of 29 and strange things begin to happen when his birthday approaches- the film is supposed to be overly surreal and allegorical. The Serbians have chosen a big-budget World War I drama- "St. George Shoots the Dragon". It's supposed to be a good enough movie, but nobody "loves" it, and it was only chosen when Serbia's original film was found to be ineligible. Director Srdjan Dragojevic directed the brilliant and harrowing war drama "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame". If he couldn't get a nomination for that, then forget "George". The former Yugoslavia's brighest hope this year is the film from Slovenia (See next section). Better luck next year.


12. ALBANIA- "Alive"
11. LITHUANIA- "Vortex"
10. SLOVENIA- "Landscape No. 2"
9. HUNGARY- "Chameleon"

The Albanians have chosen a drama ("Alive!") about a carefree (and gorgeous) Albanian college student who finds himself involved in a centuries-old blood feud when he returns to his ancestral village for a funeral. Hungary submitted a light drama about a con artist who falls for one of the women he is trying to cheat. The Lithuanians have selected a beautifully filmed black & white drama ("Vortex" aka "Waterhole") about the travails of one man's difficult life under Communism. The Slovenians have chosen a horror-thriller ("Landscape No. 2") about an amoral thief who realizes too late that some stolen documents have the power to destroy him and everyone he cares for. Four interesting films!!

Albania and Lithuania are recent arrivals to the Oscar competition, and each produces only a few films each year. "Alive" and "Vortex" have both received decent enough reviews, but Albania's film suffers from lower-than-average production values, and Lithuania's is too long for its own good. Hungary has a distinguished record in this competition (they still rank in the top twelve of all time...) but they haven't been nominated in 20 years (How the superior "Fateless" missed out with its built-in, baity Holocaust theme, I'll never know...). "Chameleon" is supposed to be an interesting film and I hope to see it, but it's out of its league here. I've seen "Landscape No. 2" and it's a great also has the best reviews of these four films. However, it's a bleak and bloody film...almost a horror movie in terms of its plot and its violence. Not the right genre for Oscar...FYI, the Slovenian nominee is on DVD in the United States already. Go see it if you can!


8. ESTONIA- "December Heat"
7. GEORGIA- "The Other Bank"
6. POLAND- "Reverse"
5. BULGARIA- "The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner"

BULGARIA has selected a drama about a grandfather and his amnesiac teenage grandson cycling around the European countryside to restore his memory ("The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner"). ESTONIA has selected "December Heat", a box-office hit at home, drenched in 1920s period music, and featuring a patriotic true story about an attempted coup organized by the Russians during Estonia's first go at independence. GEORGIA has set their story against a more modern set of political problems- the war in Abkhazia. "The Other Bank" follows a young boy whose family is separated by this longstanding but little-known war, as he searches for his father in a war zone. POLAND has selected a period black comedy- "Reverse"- set in the 1950s, about a girl, her mother and her elderly grandmother trying to cover up the murder (and dispose of the body) of a Communist agent.

All of these films are likely to leave a positive impression on the Academy, but are likely to miss the mark in making the Top Nine- They don't have the universally good reviews to make the Top Six for the large committee, nor the awards and/or backing to get one of the Wildcard slots from the smaller committee.

Bulgaria really does have a baity plot though...this sort of "Kolya-esque" intergenerational drama has worked in the past, and could potentially charm the older voters who serve on the committee. It's also the biggest Bulgarian production in decades, and it can't be counted out entirely.


4. RUSSIA- "Ward No. 6"
3. ROMANIA- "Police, Adjective"

ROMANIA and RUSSIA have sent two highbrow films that have gotten very good reviews. Russia's "Ward No. 6" is based on a Chekhov story about a doctor who becomes a patient in his own mental asylum. The story has been transplanted to contemporary Russia and is supposed to be a thought-provoking and intellectual film. It may be too highbrow for the larger committee, but stands a chance with the elite one. ROMANIA (along with SOUTH KOREA) suffers from an Oscar curse....Nearly every year, they send high-quality films that come close to being nominated....but every year they fail to make the shortlist. This year is no exception, and "Police, Adjective" may become the first Romanian movie to make the cut....Having said that, I predicted they Romania would make it to the finals for the past two years. I was wrong both times. "Police, Adjective", another intellectual film, concerns a Romanian cop surveilling a juvenile criminal. Both films have a lot of great acting, great writing and moral dilemmas but what they both lack is being part of the....


2. SLOVAKIA- "Broken Promise"
1. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Protektor"

Under Communism, Czechoslovakia was second only to the former USSR in the number of Oscar nominations...Each of the two republics of the former Czechoslovakia have sent World War II films that focus on the relations of Jews and Christians around the early 1940s. "Protektor" is about a Czech radio announcer who agrees to broadcast Nazi propaganda in return for a guarantee of protection for his flamboyant Jewish wife who refuses to follow new anti-Semitic rules in German-occupied Bohemia. It's brand-new and there's not much information about the film on the Internet...."Broken Promise" is about a young Jewish man coming-of-age in the increasingly Fascist 1930s. The film boasts very strong acting and has appeared at a number of mid-range film festivals worldwide. Neither film has won any major awards and neither film has gotten reviews as good as the films from Romania or Russia....The Slovak movie is made on somewhat of a low-budget. What they DO have is the Holocaust. The Oscar committee can rarely resist a WWII movie or a Holocaust movie. I expect one of these films (but probably not both) will join Norway's "Max Manus" on the Oscar shortlist. This isn't really fair, but that's the way this committee votes!

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries invited: 21

Number of countries submitting films: 17

Number of countries disqualified: None.

Number of countries opting out: 4- AZERBAIJAN, LATVIA and UKRAINE, all submitted films last year. BELARUS is also missing, but they last submitted in 1996. Also missing: MONTENEGRO, which produced its first film since independence- "Look At Me". Too bad. Belarus' Post-WWII drama "Cadet" might have been a contender.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Lots of dark horses....I'd say eight are threats.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Thirteen- Serbo-Croatian (3 films) and Czech (2 films) + one film each in Albanian, Bulgarian, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak and Slovene....The Armenian film is a mystery- the version I saw was almost entirely in English with a little bit in Italian, so I'm not sure how it qualified at all.

Highest profile film: ROMANIA's "Police, Adjective" has made the biggest name internationally, but there's a lot of potential on this list.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Probably, the CZECH REPUBLIC

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: ARMENIA's dull documentary short.

Number of Comedies: Poland sent a black comedy about three women covering up a murder....I've heard that some consider the Bosnian film to be a black comedy as well.

Oscar History: Lots of young, up-and-coming directors on this list....Nobody has been nominated for an Oscar before although Macedonia's Ivo Trajkov ("The Great Water"), Russia's Karen Shakhnazarov ("Zero City") and Serbia's Srdjan Dragojevic (the awesome "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame") have been in this race before.

Number of Female Directors: Just one- Hungary's Krisztina Goda

Familiar Faces: Discerning viewers may recognize Vlad Ivanov ("4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days") in the Romanian submission. Lazar Ristovski of Serbia and Emir Hadzihafizbegovic of Bosnia (who costars in the Croatian film), are easily the most famous actors in their respective countries. I'd never heard of Tonino Guerro, the documentary subject of Armenia's film, but apparently he's quite a name to some people.

Tough Choices: A lof of people thought Poland would go with Andrzej Wajda's "Sweet Rush", even though reviews weren't great....The Russians had a nine-film shortlist, of which "Wild Field" was the most acclaimed. Also ignored: "Operation Danube" (Czech Republic), "Ordinary People" (Serbia) and "Tales from the Golden Age" (Romania).

Controversies: Armenia's odd selection was directed by the President of Armenia's Film Board. The director of the Russian submission was on this year's selection Committee. Serbia's Oscar committe originally chose "Here and There" co-starring Cyndi Lauper (?!) by one vote over "St. George". They consulted with AMPAS and were advised the film was more than 50% in English, causing them to switch to their runner-up. Macedonia's film got through the nationality requirements despite being featuring a Czech cast speaking Czech.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Only 5- Estonia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia....I chose Bulgaria's film LAST YEAR since it played on the film festival circuit for nearly a year before premiering at home in Bulgaria. I came pretty close with Albania, Georgia and Romania....And my picks for Bosnia ("On the Road") and Russia ("Tsar") didn't premiere in time but could be threats next year.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've already seen the nominees from Armenia (terribly boring) and Slovenia (suspenseful, great but not Oscary). I'd love to see Poland's black comedy "Reverse" and Albania's blood feud drama "Alive!", but doubt they will ever come out in the USA.

Last year's race: I saw the submissions from Estonia ("I Was Here"), Latvia ("Defenders of Riga") and the Czech Republic ("The Karamazovs"). Estonia's was great, Latvia's well-made and the Czech film is the only time I have made the conscious decision to go to sleep in a cinema. Just awful.

Next: the films from Asia

Monday, November 2, 2009

2010 FOREIGN OSCAR NOMINATIONS PART I- The Americas, Africa and Australia

AMPAS announced it's Oscar longlist in October and 65 films made the cut, plus two countries that were apparently disqualified....The most surprising thing? For the first time since 1988, there were no countries entering the competition for the first time....I would have thought for sure we would have seen Cyprus, Ethiopia or Montenegro.....

It's a pretty weak list overall....I doubt more than 20 films have any chance at a nomination.....Every few weeks, we'll look at one-fourth of the nominees and see who's likely to get nominated for Oscar.

Part One- The Americas, Africa and Australia (16 films)
Part Two- Eastern Europe (17 films)
Part Three- Asia (17 films)
Part Four- Western Europe (17 films)


The "Other" group of countries includes all the countries outside of Europe and Asia, and varies from the ten Spanish-language films of Latin America to the more exotic tongues of Australia and Africa. Several Latin American countries bowed out last year, but they're back with a vengeance this year.....Last year this group of countries didn't get any Oscar nominations, but Canada and Mexico made the shortlist, as they often do.


16. ALGERIA- "London River" Had he shot one more scene in French, Bouchareb might have gotten his third nomination for this topical and well-reviewed drama about two parents looking for their children amidst the rubble of the London bombings....Alas, it's on Oscar's cutting room floor.


15. VENEZUELA- "Libertador Morales"
14. PUERTO RICO- "Kabo & Platon"
13. CUBA- "Fallen Gods"
12. URUGUAY- "A Bad Day to Go Fishing"

It's an honor to be nominated, and that's how these four directors should feel....With 65 films in the running, there's just no way that a low-budget, Venezuelan comedy about a motorcycle cop, which verges on nationalist propaganda can get an Oscar nomination....Ditto a low-budget inner-city drama drenched in local music, about the dreams of two Puerto Rican reggaeton singers. Neither one of these has the subject matter nor the production values to contend for an Oscar. Uruguay and Cuba have better production values, but their films- a minimalist comedy-drama about an aging wrestler touring small-town Uruguay and an ambitious, lusty but ultimately dull Cuban drama about history repeating itself amidst the world of Havana's prostitution- don't stand a chance.


11. BOLIVIA- "Zona Sur"
10. COLOMBIA- "The Wind Journeys"
9. MOROCCO- "Casanegra"
8. BRAZIL- "Salve Geral"

Bolivia has selected "Zona Sur", a topical, class-conscious drama about a spoiled, wealthy white Bolivian family that now struggles to pay for their lavish lifestyle, and the Aymara servants who have served them for years. It also features unusual (and slightly annoying) rotating cameras that frequently have none of the cast in frame. Brazil has chosen yet another violent crime drama- "Salve Geral"- about the 2006 prison riots that ended up terrorizing the entire city of Sao Paulo. Colombia's "Wind Journeys" follows a middle-aged musician who makes a road trip through the Colombian countryside with a young boy to return a treasured musical instrument to its owner. Morocco has selected "Casanegra", a gritty thriller about two best friends in Casablanca who stuggle to achieve their dreams- one to woo a beautiful woman, one to emigrate to Europe- in an atmosphere of petty crime and violence. All four are destinated to be also-rans. I've seen the films from Bolivia and Morocco- they're good but just not good enough....Bolivia's film is too low-key...Morocco's is a better film but probably too coarse for this committe. Brazil has unsuccessfully submitted films like this twice before- "Carandiru" and "Cidade de Deus", and those have been better reviewed than "Salve Geral", which has already been written off by most Brazilian bloggers. Colombia's "Wind Journeys" got good reviews and a small award at Cannes, but it too slow to make waves against 64 competitors.


7. SOUTH AFRICA- "White Wedding"
6. CANADA- "I Killed My Mother"
5. PERU- "The Milk of Sorrow"

The problem with these three films is that they are divisive....Nobody dares say a bad word about South Africa's light-hearted, inter-racial, road comedy, featuring a bridegroom trying to make it to the church on time...Everyone likes it- it's funny and charming and makes you feel good at the end (so they say....I haven't seen it...). But in the same breath, nobody thinks it's a great cinematic masterpiece. It's a fun film but not the sort that is meant to be honored alongside "The Lives of Others" or "The Shop on Main Street". That said, fluffy comedies have been nominated by the committee before- surprise nominee "Everybody Famous" was similar to "White Wedding" in this respect. Peru won the Berlin Film Festival with "The Milk of Sorrow", but the artsy Berliners are known for choosing inaccessible fare. Reviews for this powerful film- about how the ravages of rape and war affect women years after the conflict has finished- have been somewhat mixed, but it could potentially compete for the one of the three wildcard slots chosen by the smaller committee. "I Killed My Mother", directed by a 20-year old newcomer is a French-language Canadian drama about the antagonistic relationship between a gay teenage son and his mother. The film has often mentioned as a shortlist contender but Variety notes that there's a lot of room for improvement- the film is great for a debut but not quite good enough. Add to that that Canada submitted a similar-themed, cinematically perfect film in 2005- "C.R.A.Z.Y."- and that didn't get a nomination.


4. MEXICO- "El Traspatio"
3. AUSTRALIA- "Samson & Delilah"

"El Traspatio"- a drama about a series of real-life brutal (and mostly unsolved) murders of women on the Mexico-Texas border- hasn't gotten the best of reviews....BUT, Mexico has been shortlisted four of the past nine years and two of those films also got merely average-to-positive reviews- including "El Crimen de Padre Amaro", by the same director as "Traspatio". This sort of slick, well-produced drama has worked with this committee before. I have a feeling that "Samson and Delilah"- a road drama about two Aboriginal teens on the run- is too arty for this committee. It contains very little dialogue (slightly more than half is in Aboriginal languages) and aimless, drug-addled teen drama just doesn't sound like the right genre to get a nomination....However, it has gotten excellent reviews and a lot of people like the film. With this many films in play, I think it will end up missing the mark....


2. CHILE- "Dawson, Isla 10"

One potential nominee that no-one is talking about is Chile's "Dawson, Isla 10". Chile has never been nominated but they make some good films- I've enjoyed many of their well-made, original and thought-provoking Oscar submissions over the years. Miguel Littin, a Chilean who fled to Mexico in the 1970s, has been nominated twice for Oscar but never as a representative of his home country. His latest film is a drama, praised by the Chilean President herself, about a group of political dissidents living in exile on a prison island on a bitterly cold island in Southern Chile. It premiered at the last minute (beating out favorite "La Nana") so there's not much on the web, but Littin has scored in this category before and the trailer looks quite Oscary. The political slant may hurt, but the human story seems universal. Expect it to contend for the shortlist.

1. ARGENTINA- "The Secret of Their Eyes"

Argentina is the only Latin American country to ever win an Oscar in this category and "The Secret of Their Eyes" has gotten some of the best reviews of the year. The film is a well-crafted mystery about a man trying to solve a murder case from 30 years earlier. Every review is a testament to the filmmaking, every website sings its praises. It's probably the closest thing to a lock this year...The only minor drawback? Many people also considered previous Argentine also-rans "Leonera" and "Kamchatka" as locks...Still, count on "The Secret of Their Eyes" to get shortlisted with little difficulty.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 17 from The Americas, 11 from Africa and 2 from Oceania.

Number of countries submitting films: 12 from The Americas, 3 from Africa and 1 from Oceania.

Number of countries disqualified: ALGERIA's El-Watan newspaper reported in early October that "London River", by two-time Oscar nominee Rachid Bouchareb would rep Algeria, but it was apparently disqualified for containing more than 50% English.

Number of countries opting out: The most notable absence is EGYPT, a great film-making country that has sent films six of the past seven years, and had a decent year at home.....Egypt holds the record (tied with Portugal now....) for the most submissions without an Oscar nod. Not sure why they didn't send a film this year....Also surprising: ETHIOPIA was expected to make its first-ever Oscar showing with "Teza", which won awards in Venice and Ouagadougou, and which had a successful run locally in Addis Ababa....TANZANIA's Josiah Kibira lobbied unsuccessfully for Tanzania to submit Swahili-language comedy "Bongoland 2". Others opting out: BURKINA FASO, CAMEROON, CHAD, COSTA RICA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, ECUADOR and TUNISIA , which actually had films to submit, and CONGO-KINSHASA, COTE D'IVOIRE (a former Oscar winner!), FIJI, GUATEMALA and NICARAGUA, which likely didn't.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Six, and that's pushing it.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Ten out of sixteen films are mostly in Spanish....but more interestingly, three of these films are also in indigenous Indian languages: Aymara (Bolivia), Quechua (Peru) and Wayuu (Colombia). The other six films were in Afrikaans, Arabic, French, Portuguese, Warlpiri, Xhosa, Zulu, and three have a healthy dose of English.

Highest profile films: PERU, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin, and AUSTRALIA, which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: ARGENTINA, hands down

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: VENEZUELA's political propaganda comedy.

Number of Comedies: Three- South Africa, Uruguay and Venezuela

Oscar History: Argentina's Juan Jose Campanella was nominated for "Son of the Bride" a few years back, Mexico's Carlos Carrera was nominated for "The Secret of Father Amaro", and Chile's Miguel Littin was nominated in this category in both 1976 (representing Mexico) and 1983 (representing Nicaragua). The director of Algeria's disqualified nominee was nominated twice before...Also, the directors from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru have repped their countries in this competition before.

Number of Female Directors: Two- Peru's Claudia Llosa, and South Africa's Jann Turner

Familiar Faces: The most recognizable faces among this lot are probably US TV star Jimmy Smits (Mexico's "El Traspatio"), two-time British Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn (Algeria's "London River") and Ricardo Darin (Argentina's "The Secret of Her Eyes"). Those with more specialized tastes may recognize former "Strongest Man on Earth" Jouko Ahola, a Finnish bodybuilder who stars in the Uruguayan submission, and Cristián de la Fuente who has small roles in several US TV shows like "The Class" and "Ugly Betty", as well as the starring role in the Chilean submission.

Tough Choices: Almost everyone expected wry comedy "Gigante" and black comedy "La Nana" to represent URUGUAY and CHILE respectively....Sebastian Silva admitted he was stunned to lose the Chilean nod to upstart "Dawson Island 10"....."Rudo y Cursi" was expected by many to rep Mexico based on the starpower of Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, but it was dropped for more serious fare....I was seriously rooting for Cuba to choose "The Horn of Plenty", which reunites the director and stars of my favorite Latin American film "The Waiting List", but to no avail....And South Africa dumped two politically sensitive dramas- "Zimbabwe" and "Triumph"- for a feel-good romantic comedy that rocked the local box office.

Controversies: Some said "London River" and "Samson & Delilah" wouldn't qualify because they had too much English dialogue....The mostly silent "Samson" made it in, but "River" was cut.....Some griped that the selection of Venezuela's nominee (made by the national film studio, and reflecting a pro-government slant) was politically motivated.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 8- I got Argentina, Australia, Canada, Colombia, Morocco and Peru right, plus I correctly picked the Mexican nominee from their longlist and guessed that Algeria would try to send "River". I came close with Puerto Rico and Uruguay, while Brazil & Chile took me completely by surprise.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from Bolivia (B-), Cuba (C-) and Morocco (B+) it's a toss-up between ARGENTINA's "The Secret of Their Eyes" (stellar reviews) and SOUTH AFRICA's bright and happy comedy "White Wedding" which allegedly made its whole country smile.