Friday, December 31, 2010


Great news! AFGHANISTAN is in! After being disqualified, they were allowed in at the 66th official entry, and will be one of the final films screenings for the Oscar committee, which end January 17th.

Here are the seventeen films from Asia:


17. IRAN- "Farewell Baghdad"
15. INDONESIA- "What a Funny Country This Is"
14. KAZAKHSTAN- "Strayed"
13. BANGLADESH- "Third Person Singular Number"

First, I congratulate all of these countries for entering the competition. These five may have absolutely no chance to make the shortlist, but it doesn't mean they are bad films....I hope to see all of them this year, and I would probably never even know about them if not for the Foreign Oscar race.

Most of these films come from countries with developing film industries (all except IRAN), all were made on extremely limited budgets, and all of the films suffer from one or more major problems.

The PHILIPPINES has selected, "Noy", a weird docu-drama that has gotten mixed-to-negative reviews, about a man from a poor and troubled family (fiction, with famous actors playing the roles) who becomes a documentarian for the presidential campaign of Noynoy Aquino (featuring real documentary footage). Middling reviews, and a plot requiring knowledge of local politics = OUT.

IRAN has selected "Farewell Baghdad", an anti-war film about an American boxer who joins the US army to avoid going to prison for murder....He ends up going AWOL in Iraq where he meets a suicide bomber. It's said to be visually interesting, but with a confusing plot, middling reviews and zero visibility on the Film Fest circuit. OUT.

INDONESIA has chosen a "heartwarming" comedy about an unemployed college graduate who tries to reform a group of child pickpockets. I've seen clips, and it simply doesn't have the production values or the gravitas to make the cut. OUT.

KAZAKHSTAN has been shortlisted twice in the past three years, and this year they've chosen the intriguing psychological thriller, "Strayed". A man's wife and child disappear into thin air in the middle of nowhere during a cross-country trip across the steppes. Some people like the film, but a lot of people hate it. Way too divisive. OUT.

BANGLADESH has the strongest film in the bottom tier..."Third Person Singular Number", about a liberated young woman trying to maintain her independence in a conservative society, was a major domestic hit and probably one of the best movies to come out of Bangladesh (I had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful country in October, where I picked up the DVD). Like Indonesia though, production values simply don't meet Oscar's standards, although it's an improvement from previous years. OUT.


12. SOUTH KOREA- "Barefoot Dream"
11. KYRGYZSTAN- "The Light Thief"
10. HONG KONG- "Echoes of the Rainbow"
9. ISRAEL- "The Human Resources Manager"
8. TAIWAN- "Monga"

These four gentle comedies and one intense gangster drama are also certain NOT to make the Oscar shortlist. HONG KONG's "Echoes of the Rainbow" is a nostalgic look at a middle-class family living life in the 1960s under British rule, and what happens when their popular eldest son is diagnosed with cancer. It won a Crystal Bear at Berlin and got mostly good reviews, but couldn't even managed a Best Picture nod at this year's local HK Film Awards.....ISRAEL's "Human Resources Manager" is a droll comedy-drama about an HR Manager at an Israeli bakery who journeys to distant Romania to ensure a proper burial for an employee killed in a terrorist attack. It was the upset winner at this year's Israeli Film Awards, but reviews have been decidedly mixed. ISRAEL is popular with the Oscar committee for some strange reason (I liked "Ajami", but hated "Waltz with Bashir" and "Beaufort") but I don't see this getting through. KOREA's "Barefoot Dream" is a feel-good sports movie about an unscrupulous Korean entrepeneur trying to make money selling high-end sneakers to poor street kids in Timor-Leste. Although it is good at pressing the emotional buttons, it has not wowed the critics and is an odd choice to represent Korea. Unstable KYRGYZSTAN has sent "The Light Thief", about a rural man who "steals" electricity to provide to his poor village. It won Best Picture at the Eurasia International Film Fest in Kazakhstan, and will play at MoMA in NYC this week....It's supposed to be a fun movie to watch and Kyrgyzstan is rumored to have come close to being nominated before, but at a sparse 80 minutes and with 65 bigger movies in the mix, this "small" film is likely out of luck. TAIWAN's "Monga" is probably the best film of the bunch- a smartly made, visually impressive gangster movie about the rise and fall of five youths in the Taipei underworld. I hate gangster movies, and yet I loved this film. For Oscar though, reviews aren't good enough and it's simply the wrong genre to succeed here.


7. AFGHANISTAN- "Black Tulip"
6. INDIA- "Peepli [Live]"
5. IRAQ- "Son of Babylon"

AFGHANISTAN's film "Black Tulip" is truly a labor of love....The film was made under difficult, war-like conditions by an Afghan-American woman who then had to confront the bureaucracy of the Academy that at first disqualified the film on a technicality. Sonia Nassery Cole has also proved savvy at marketing the film, getting it an Oscar-qualifying run in a Los Angeles theatre, a low-key campaign for Best Song, a number of sold-out promotional screenings, and an amazing trailer. I can't wait to see the film but I've heard from a friend that the film is definitely an amateur effort...A fine first film, but probably not an Oscar contender.

IRAQ has been cited on many Oscar sites as a potential nominee based on its stirring, Oscar subject matter- a Kurdish grandmother and a little boy search for the boy's father amidst the rubble of 2003 Iraq. Again, it's hard to find fault with films from this part of the world which have to deal with so many problems just to get their movies made....However, I've heard that audiences believe the film is just not interesting enough to make the Top Nine. I'm sad I missed it at the Arab Film Festival here in DC...

As for INDIA, "Peepli [Live]" is a good film. It's a jet-black comedy where you laugh out loud and then feel guilty for laughing. A farmer deep in debt learns that his family will receive a great deal of compensation money if he commits suicide- enough to save the farm. When the rapacious Indian national media learns of his dilemma, they turn the simple farmer's village into a media madhouse. The film takes a while to get going, but gets better as it goes along. I saw it with Indian-Americans who say the film brilliantly satirizes what goes on in Indian government and media. Probably not good enough, but who knows?


4. THAILAND- "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"
3. TURKEY- "Honey"

Neither one of these film has any chance with the mainstream committee, but they might make the next round solely on the basis of their surprise wins at Berlin and Cannes, respectively....The elite committee may choose either or both films to avoid the embarrassment of skipping a major festival winner.

I haven't seen either film, but I think the elite committee should pass.

THAILAND's "Uncle Boonmee" may have won Cannes, but it's one of the worst-reviewed Cannes winners in years. This surreal, dream-like film with red-eyed monkeys, sex with fish and little plot is a film I'm looking forward to seeing, but not one that most people seem to think is deserving of an Oscar nomination.

TURKEY's "Bal" (Honey), the winner of Berlinale 2010, has a better shot. The story focuses on a 6-year old boy in search of his father, a beekeeper who has disappeared. The story is slow, the landcape is pretty and the kids are cute. Hard to judge how much weight the elite committee puts on awards (I think, a lot) but that Golden Bear may get it through.


2. JAPAN- "Confessions"

JAPAN's "Confessions" is supposed to be one of the most deserving and brilliant films of the year. Its director, Tetsuya Nakashima, directed "Memories of Matsuko", my favorite foreign-language film of all-time. The film focuses on a young female teacher who hatches a plot of cold-blooded revenge against the pupils responsible for the death of her young daughter...and who it seems are now in her class. Reviews have been excellent. Can this film be another "Departures"? Right now, I'm guessing sadly no....I have the film ranked #11 and only nine films make the shortlist...But I have my fingers crossed....


1. CHINA- "Aftershock” 

CHINA's earthquake drama has it all. Amazing special effects (rarely seen in this category), Western production values, emotional drama and an engaging plot. The real star of the film is the terrible Tangshan Earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1976, but the emotional story comes in the form of a woman whose twin children are trapped beneath the rubble. Rescuers tell her that due to the placement of the debris, rescuing one child will mean the likely death of the other. Great reviews and lots of Oscar bait here. The film got a US release which apparently entailed cutting a half-hour, but you can buy the DVD in NYC Chinatown, which I will watch next week.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 33

Number of countries participating this year: 17

Number of countries disqualified: One....but then AMPAS changed its mind.....AFGHANISTAN's "Black Tulip" managed to survive the kidnapping and mutilation of its original lead actress, a dangerous film shoot in Afghanistan, and a makeshift cinematic run in Kabul to qualify for the Oscars. AMPAS originally refused to accept it because they said it wasn't selected by the official Afghan film body designated by the Oscars (who was it submitted by?) but it appeared on the screening schedule about two months after the official announcement. Good, because the films looks great!

Number of countries opting out: Most of the other 16 countries are not regular participants in the category....Pakistan hasn't sent a film in forty years! The most notable absences this year were last year's shortlister AUSTRALIA (which had no non-English films this year) and VIETNAM, which has sent films four of the past five years, and which announced that most of its best films of the year didn't meet AMPAS screening requirements. Also absent: SRI LANKA, which sent a film last year...previous nominees NEPAL and PALESTINE ..... plus LEBANON, MONGOLIA and SINGAPORE which have sent multiple films in the past ten years.

Biggest mistake? None were likely to be nominated, but MONGOLIA had a new Byambasuren Davaa ("Story of a Weeping Camel") film they could have sent, SINGAPORE's "Sandcastle" got good notices at Cannes Critics Week, JORDAN 's tiny film industry could have been buffeted with costume drama "Cherkess" and the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES could have sent a film for the first time with multi-lingual "City of Life".

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many....Three with a decent shot....three more with barely any. The eleven others are out of the running.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Three films in three different Chinese languages (Cantonese, Mandarin and Taiwanese) plus one each in Arabic, Bangla, Dari, Filipino, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Kyrgyz, Russian, Thai and Turkish....Two Middle Eastern films are multilingual....Kurdish/Arabic (Iraq) and Hebrew/Romanian (Israel)

Highest profile film: THAILAND's "Uncle Boonmee" hasn't gotten the best reviews, but it did win the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: CHINA's epic disaster movie, "Aftershock"

Longest Shot for a Nomination: IRAN's war drama, "Farewell Baghdad"...It's gotten very little festival play and middling reviews.

Number of Comedies: Two legit comedies....INDIA and INDONESIA, while HONG KONG, ISRAEL, KYRGYZSTAN and THAILAND sent comedy-dramas.

Number of Horror Films: KAZAKHSTAN's film is more of a "Twilight Zone" episode, rather than a horror film.

Oscar History: None of the submitted directors have ever found favor with Oscar, although four have previously competed for their countries, namely HONG KONG's Alex Law ("Painted Faces"), IRAQ's Mohamed al-Daradji ("Dreams"), KOREA's Kim Tae-gyun (the superb "Crossing") and KYRGYZSTAN's Aktan Arym Kubat (aka Aktan Abdykalykov- "Beshkempir" and "The Chimp").

Two countries have won the Oscar before (Japan and Taiwan), while six others have been nominated (China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Israel and Kazakhstan) and one more shortlisted (Turkey). The other luck yet.

Number of Female Directors: Only two...INDIA's Anusha Rizvi and AFGHANISTAN's Sonia Nassery Cole. Congratulations to Cole, the first-ever Afghan woman in the competition!

Youngest Directors: 32-year old Mohamed al-Daradji (Iraq) is a few months younger than Anusha Rizvi (India).

Familiar Faces: Not many! Perhaps the most recognizable (and surprising) face will be Jack Scalia, who co-stars in the film from Afghanistan. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will surely recognize the two lead stars of "Echoes of the Rainbow"- Simon Yam and Sandra Ng- from dozens of other films. You probably don't know the name of Mark Ivanir, who plays the title role in Israel's "Human Resources Manager", but he has guest-starred on a lot of popular American TV shows.....Finally, you won't see his face in "Peepli Live", but Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan produced the entry from India.

Tough Choices: The toughest choice was probably for JAPAN, which had a slew of well-received films and no favorite. I think they chose wisely.....SOUTH KOREA turned down the favorite, Chang-dong Lee's "Poetry", which came in second place in their contest. ISRAEL's "Intimate Grammar" was the heavy favorite to rep the Israelis, until it went home empty-handed at the Israeli Ophir Awards....THAILAND also turned down their Best Picture winner this year, namely, "October Sonata". CHINA snubbed 3-time Oscar nominee Zhang Yimou's "A Man, A Woman and a Noodle Shop" and Chow Yun-fat's "Confucius", but that wasn't a surprise against blockbuster "Aftershock"....INDIA turned down popular hits, "My Name is Khan" and "Three Idiots".....Other films of note: "Au Revoir, Taipei" (TAIWAN), "Breath" (TURKEY), "Gold and Copper" (IRAN). As for INDONESIA, their toughest choice this year was finding a good film....

Controversies and Changes: No big controversies, although IRAN changed their selection process, allowing government bureaucrats a greater say in the selection than filmmakers, resulting in several critically acclaimed films being shunted aside for "Farewell Baghdad". BANGLADESH extended the national deadline after the favorite "Third Person Singular Number" failed to enter the race....After they filled out the paperwork, it was selected over the other two films that had registered on time. In CHINA, "Aftershock" director Feng Xiaogang said he made his movie for Chinese audiences and didn't really want his movie to go to the Oscars where it would lose, but that may have been false modesty.....TAIWAN originally chose "Hear Me", but they were disqualified when it turns out that they fibbed about their release date....

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Six, including super-hard INDIA. Also, BANGLADESH, CHINA, IRAQ, KYRGYZSTAN and THAILAND. I came super close with AFGHANISTAN, TAIWAN and TURKEY.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from KAZAKHSTAN (B+), INDIA (B+), SOUTH KOREA (B) and TAIWAN (A-), part of the film from INDONESIA, and I have the DVDs here at home for the films from BANGLADESH, CHINA and HONG KONG. I'm dying to see the films from Afghanistan and China but my top choice is JAPAN's brilliant-looking "Confessions".

Last year's race: I did well, seeing 12 of last year's 17 Asian films. Three of them really deserved to be nominated, but none of them were.
My rankings:
1. KAZAKHSTAN- "Kelin" (A) An original, breathtaking, completely wordless work of art
2. SOUTH KOREA- "Mother" (A-) Fascinating slow-burn mystery/thriller...What a story! What an actress! What an ending!
3. JAPAN- "Nobody to Watch Over Me" (A-), an emotional thriller about a cop asked to protect the teenaged sister of an accused child killer ....Having lived in Japan for 4 years, I think it's a realistic look at the Japanese psyche.....
4. ISRAEL- "Ajami" (B+) Good multi-character drama in the vein of "Crash"
5. TAIWAN- "No Puedo Vivir Sin Ti" (B+) Strong character drama about a man (nearly homeless) who does his best to take care of his beloved young daughter.
6. TURKEY- "I Saw the Sun" (B) Good family drama about a Kurdish refugee family divided between Istanbul and Norway.
7. INDIA- "Harishchandrachi Factory" (B-) Slight comedy about the making of the first-ever film in India. Lots of energy and attention to detail, but slightly underwhelming.
8. CHINA- "Forever Enthralled" (C+) Beautifully filmed, slightly dull Chinese opera drama
9. THAILAND- "Best of Times" (C+) Entertaining but forgettable commercial romantic comedy about two couples- one old, one young.
10. HONG KONG- "Prince of Tears" (C-) Dull soap opera about an important topic- the anti-Communist witch hunts in 1950s Taiwan.
11. PHILIPPINES- "Grandpa is Dead" (D+) Somewhat entertaining but poorly made comedy about a large family mourning the family patriarch.
12. AUSTRALIA- "Samson & Delilah" (D) The opposite of "Kelin"...Nearly wordless and extremely boring drama about two aborigine teenagers very little. How do it make the shortlist over "MOTHER"?
I couldn't track down the five remaining films, from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, but "About Elly" should be released on DVD this year.


Happy New Year....

The Western Europeans have traditionally hogged the five nominations as a bloc....Nowadays, it seems to be just FRANCE and GERMANY that have the Oscar love....The Germans have been nominated five of the past six years....Despite being one of their strongest films, "Edge of Heaven", a drama about Turkish-Germans, was the one film that missed the cut....Will this year's similarly-themed Turkish-German film suffer the same fate?

Here is the line-up from Western Europe, including the autonomous Danish province of Greenland, competing separately for the very first time.


16. PORTUGAL- "To Die Like A Man"
15. NORWAY- "Angel"
14. FINLAND- "Steam of Life"

This year's biggest Western European long-shot is more often than not the entry from PORTUGAL....This year's "To Die Like A Man" is a melodramatic film about an aging transsexual who discovers that she is dying....It's filled with Almodovar-esque melodrama and histrionics, drag musical numbers and a number of bizarre occurences. The film has its admirers, but almost everyone complains about its lengthy 2hr20m running time, overall reception has been mixed and the subject matter (drag queens, outdoor sex, breast implants) just doesn't seem like it will appeal to the committee. These two Scandinavians films are also sure to be ignored too....NORWAY has chosen a gritty, off-putting drama about a heroin addict whose child is (quite rightfully) taken away. A lot of people dislike the film and even its fans admit its a difficult film to watch. FINLAND's submission is a well-liked documentary about the Finnish tradition of saunas. The Finns are well-known throughout Europe for being a quiet and unemotional people, but the film tries to dispel these stereotypes by watching Finnish men (in saunas) to talk about their lives. The film was a major success in its home country and some of the themes are universal, but documentaries have a natural disadvantage in this category, and the film is too filled with naked bodies and naked honesty to compete here.


13. GREECE- "Dogtooth"
12. GREENLAND- "Nuummioq"
11. AUSTRIA- "La Pivellina"
10. SWEDEN- "Simple Simon"

First of all, there is no chance in hell that the larger committee will choose's GREECE's bloody black comedy, "Dogtooth", but I'm putting Greece in this category on the tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny chance that the elite committee will select it. But I doubt it.

None of these films really have much of a chance....GREECE, as mentioned above, is simply not everyone's cup of tea. "Dogtooth" may have won a lot of awards AND attracted interest at every festival it appeared at, but this gory fairy tale of what happens when two modern-day parents seal off their children from the rest of the world in a palatial mansion is simply not the kind of film that gets nominated. I can't wait to see it though and it comes out on DVD in the USA in January.

AUSTRIA and GREENLAND have chosen films that aren't likely to stand out in the crowd. "La Pivellina" is an Italian-language drama about a middle-aged circus performer who finds a 2-year old infant abandoned in a park, with a note saying that the mother will one day return. She and her family proceed to try and take care of the child. Many people like the film, but no one loves it. GREENLAND's "Nuummioq" is a beautiful film featuring the beautiful landscapes and fjords of this remote island territory....The film has a great backstory (one of the first feature films made by Greenlandic filmmakers....first director dropped out halfway after being depressed, but film was completed by another crew member) but this tale of a dying man looking for love has gotten better reviews for its cinematography than for its story. SWEDEN has once again chosen a youth-oriented comedy, this time about a socially awkward young man with Asperger's Syndrome who goes on a quest to find his brother a girlfriend. The trailer looks quite funny, and there is always a chance of an "Everybody Famous"-style upset, but I think this film is a little too silly to contend for the Top Nine.


9. ICELAND- "Mamma Gógó"
8. BELGIUM- "Illegal"
7. SWITZERLAND- "La Petite Chambre"
6. SPAIN- "Even the Rain"

BELGIUM has selected a film about an illegal Russian immigrant trying to game the immigration system and stay in touch with her son after being detained in a detention center to await deportation, in the French-language drama, "Illegal". Pros: film boasts strong acting and a topical issue. Based-on-a-true story. Cons: "Illegal" is overtly political, occasionally preachy and maddeningly one-sided. Weak ending. Its "cinema-verite" style will appeal to some, but not to others.
ICELAND chose an autobiographical story of a filmmaker in dire financial straits who also has to deal with the worsening Alzheimers of his beloved mother in the gentle drama "Mamma Gógó". Pros: plot will appeal to filmmakers, and the committee may be charmed by a subplot in which the filmmaker awaits the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations. Cons: critics say the movie is good but not great- it even lost Best Picture at the Icelandic Oscars to another film.
SPAIN chose "Even the Rain", a drama about a Spanish film crew trying to make a historical movie in Bolivia. The film, starring Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, takes a cerebral look at capitalism, indigenous people and exploitation. Pros: good reviews, international cast and high production values. Cons: The film may be too smart for its own good.
SWITZERLAND chose French-language drama "La Petite Chambre", a quiet film about the budding friendship between a young nurse and her elderly patient. Pros: Screenplay and story are likely to appeal to the committee, which tends to like these inter-generational dramas. CONS: The film is a small and intimate relationship drama- the opposite of the splashy, dramatic films that have dominated the category in the last few years, and has generated little buzz.
Bottom Line: It's an uphill battle, but SPAIN's pedigree has the best chance of breaking through.


4. FRANCE- "Of Gods and Men"

Two films set in different regions of Africa are both dark horses for the shortlist. FRANCE has chosen a true-story film set in Algeria, about a group of dedicated French monks who refuse to abandon their beloved monastery when threatened by Islamic fundamentalists. Despite excellent relations with the local community, the monks are held hostage and killed by their captors. THE NETHERLANDS film is set in Namibia, and is based on a famous Dutch novel, about a man searching for his missing daughter (with the help of a child prostitute, no less!) in Southern Africa.

France is perenially on the shortlist, and "Of Gods and Men" won Best Foreign Film at the National Board of Review and appeared at Cannes, but not every one loves the film, which most say is inspiring and contemplative but which some say is slow and overlong...."Tirza" has gotten somewhat better reviews and has the baity plot and beautiful vistas of a nominee. I'm ranking France higher based on their long Oscar track record

3. ITALY- "The First Beautiful Thing"
2. GERMANY- "When We Leave"

GERMANY is golden with the Academy, winning nominations five of the past six years. This year's film is a drama about a young Turkish-German woman who goes back to Turkey to get married. After several years, she leaves the abusive relationship and returns to Germany, only to face ostracism and anger from her family for breaking with tradition. This film has gotten stronger reviews from American critics than foreign critics and the committee tends to like "issue-based" films, and German films in general, so this should have a good shot at making it through....Unlike Germany, ITALY's strong Oscar record is very much in the past. Since they won in 1999 (for "Life is Beautiful"), they've only been nominated once, and that was for the mediocre "Don't Tell", one of the most unmemorable Foreign Film nominees in recent history. They could have won this year with "The Man Who Comes", but chose a tearjerker comedy-drama about the relationship between a vivacious (but dying) mother, and her adult son instead...."The First Beautiful Thing" presses a lot of Oscar's favorite buttons, and seems to be the sort of movie that got Italy a lot of its nominations in its 60s and 70s heyday.

Germany and Italy face a lot of competition from their WWII opponents in France and Holland, and aren't guaranteed of a slot....but I imagine at least one of them will make it through.


1. DENMARK- "In A Better World" This epic drama has everything that Oscar looks for, and will be a real threat to take the Oscar home in February. The plot is difficult to summarize, but concerns the friendship between two boys from troubled homes in Denmark; one is a shy boy whose father works as an aid worker in Africa, the other the violent son of a recently widowed father. The film has universally positive reviews, a thought-provoking plot, issues of morality and revenge, and was one of three films on this list to net a Golden Globe nomination (alongside Russia and Mexico). Director Susanne Bier has been shown some Oscar love before ("After the Wedding") and has also made some Hollywood films. I think "World" is safe.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 18

Number of countries participating this year: 16, including first-timer GREENLAND

Number of countries disqualified: None.

Number of countries opting out: 3, namely IRELAND,
LUXEMBOURGand UNITED KINGDOM. Ireland didn't have any eligible films, but I'm a bit surprised by the absence of the other two.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: About seven.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 13. Three films are mostly in French (Belgium, France and Switzerland), two are in Italian (Austria and Italy), with one each in Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Greenlandic, Icelandic, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. There's a little bit of Arabic (France) and Turkish (Germany) in there as well.

Highest profile films: The most well-known is probably GREECE's bizarre "Dogtooth", which won Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Ooh...This is always difficult in Western Europe, but I'm putting my money on DENMARK's "In a Better World".

Longest Shot for a Nomination: More often than not, the biggest long shot is PORTUGAL, and this year is no exception with campy melodrama "To Die Like A Man"

Number of Comedies: Three- GREECE, ITALY and SWEDEN

Number of Documentaries: One. FINLAND

Number of Horror Films:, sort of...GREECE again.

Oscar History: DENMARK's Susanne Bier and ICELAND's Friðrik Þór Friðriksson have gotten Oscar nominations before....Bier was nominated in 2007 for "After the Wedding", and Fridriksson was nominated in 1992 for "Children of Nature". This is the sixth time Fridriksson is representing Iceland, and his semi-autobiographical film, "Mamma Gogo", follows the aftermath of "Nature"'s surprise Oscar nomination.

Also, the NETHERLANDS' Rudolf Van Der Berg previously repped his country twenty years ago, in 1990.

Every country has been nominated at least once before, except PORTUGAL, and debutante GREENLAND.

Number of Female Directors: Seven women representing six countries.....DENMARK (Susanne Bier), GERMANY (Feo Aladag), NORWAY (Margreth Olin), and for the first time ever, SPAIN (Iciar Bollain) have female directors. Also both directors of the film from SWITZERLAND are women, as is one of the two co-directors (husband and wife) of the film from AUSTRIA.

Now that Spain's Bollain has broken the glass ceiling, the only Western European country never to send a woman-helmed film is, shockingly, liberal SWEDEN.

Familiar Faces: The only major international star is Gael Garcia Bernal in SPAIN's "Even the Rain", but you might also recognize- Ulrich Thomsen (Denmark), Hilmir Snaer Gudnason (Iceland), Lambert Wilson (France) and Sibel Kekilli (Germany) in their respective national submissions.

Tough Choices: NORWAY seems to have had the hardest time deciding. Their selection committee had to meet several times, dithering between heroin addict drama "Angel", and critically acclaimed comedy "A Somewhat Gentle Man". I found ITALY to be the biggest surprise, turning down the film that I thought would win the 2011 Oscar, namely critically-acclaimed WWII drama, "The Man Who Will Come". Even more people were surprised by the loss of Goya-winning prison drama "Cell 311", from SPAIN. Also, FRANCE ignored whimsical Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie") comedy "The Micmacs" and Holocaust music drama (Oscar loves them all!) "The Concert", ICELAND opted not to choose their 2010 Best Picture winner, comedy "Mr. Bjarnfredarson" and FINLAND did the same with expensive patriotic war drama "Under the North Star". Happily, SWITZERLAND chose another film over "Film Socialisme", Godard's latest self-indulgent folly.

Controversies and Changes: Belgian immigration cadres have rightfully complained about the one-sided "Illegal", but that hardly counts as a controversy.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Six: DENMARK, GREECE, GREENLAND, ICELAND, NETHERLANDS, PORTUGAL, and I had the films from BELGIUM, FRANCE, ITALY and SPAIN as runners-up (all difficult!). I had ever heard of the Finnish film.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've already seen the overtly politicized and borderline offensive "Illegal" from BELGIUM. Honestly, I'm extremely intrigued by the love-it-or-hate-it buzz surrounding "Dogtooth" (GREECE) and also by the funny trailer of SWEDEN's "Simple Simon".

Last year's race: I did well, seeing 10 of the 17 Western European films, although I wasn't very impressed by most of them....My personal favorite was BRITAIN's lively, moving documentary "Afghan Star", which follows real-life contestants on Afghanistan's version of "American Idol".

My grades:
1. UNITED KINGDOM- "Afghan Star" A-
2. DENMARK- "Terribly Happy" B+, Original and clever
3. LUXEMBOURG- "Refractaire" B+, Solid and enlightening history tale4. ICELAND- Reykjavik-Rotterdam" B, Good but unmemorable
5. FRANCE- "Un Prophete" B, Very well-made...but OH SO LONG!
6. GERMANY- "The White Ribbon" B-, Not my favorite Haneke, but good ending.
7. NORWAY- "Max Manus:" B-, Well-made war drama
8. SWITZERLAND- "Home" B-, Original and starts off strong but loses steam in second act.
9. FINLAND- "Letters to Father Jacob" C, Slight, 75-minute drama
10. BELGIUM- "The Misfortunates" C, Well-acted but with unpleasant characters and slightly boring.

The shortlist should come out around January 15th....

Next will be the 16 nominees from Asia....

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The films from Eastern Europe this year are not a very promising bunch....17 films are competing from the 21 eligible countries.....


17. ESTONIA- “The Temptation of St. Tony”
16. AZERBAIJAN- “The Precinct”
15. CROATIA- “The Blacks”

Better luck next year for these three republics, formerly parts of the USSR and Yugoslavia...Both AZERBAIJAN and ESTONIA have gone with surreal, metaphorical route filled with abstract imagery, while CROATIA has gone with grim realism.

“The Temptation of St. Tony” has gotten a lot of festival play (I saw it in DC) and “The Precinct” has somehow managed a tiny US release in California. Despite interesting (and strange) trailers, there’s no way either can contend for an Oscar. “St. Tony” takes a cue from David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”, and includes a lot of bizarre imagery including murder, dead dogs and cannibalism, but it has no linear plot, makes very little sense and manages to be boring despite its racy subject matter. “The Precinct” follows a photographer who angers his fiancée by postponing their marriage to take a job in Africa. The couple get into a car accident and find themselves in a metaphysical police precinct where the cops know every detail of their lives. Too weird.

Despite a glowing review from Variety, Croatia’s “The Blacks” is also guaranteed not to advance. This bleak war drama told in flashbacks looks at war crimes committed by Croatian forces during the 1990s. With dark lighting and unlikeable characters plotting to kill civilians and destroy the country’s infrastructure, there are as many people who hate the film as like it.


14. SLOVAKIA- “The Border”
13. SLOVENIA- “9:06”
12. BULGARIA- “Eastern Plays”

The Bulgarians (shortlisted for the first time last year) have selected a bleak drama about two brothers- one, a recovering drug addict, the other a teenaged skinhead. The Slovenians have selected a thriller about a policeman who becomes obsessed with the life of a man whose death (murder? suicide?) he is investigating. The Slovaks have selected a fascinating documentary about an ethnic Hungarian town that was literally split down the middle by invading Soviets in the 1940s, dividing families and farms between Czechoslovakia and the USSR (and now Slovakia and Ukraine).

I’ve seen the films from Bulgaria and Slovakia, and they’re simply not good enough. “Eastern Plays” somehow won the Tokyo Film Festival, but it’s not an interesting film and I’m sure there will be enough people who agree with me who will keep the film out of the running. The only nice thing I can say is that Bulgarian production values have come a long way since the 1990s. The Slovakian film is fascinating- I liked it very much. But it’s definitely a flawed documentary whose main attribute is that it highlights an issue that I never would have known about otherwise. Certain elements could have been expanded upon (particularly the ethnic element), others edited, and while it is certainly worth seeing, it doesn’t deserve an Oscar. The Slovenian film is said to be a decent-enough film, but I’ve heard it begins to fall apart in the end- exactly what you don’t what a thriller to do. Better luck next year to these three too...


11. HUNGARY- “Bibliotheque Pascal”
10. ALBANIA- “East West East”
9. MACEDONIA- “Mothers”
8. LATVIA- “Hong Kong Confidential”
7. POLAND- “All That I Love”

Coming-of-age punk.
Sado-masochistic sex.
Albanian comedy.
Three short films, consisted of two dramas and a documentary.
An Asian comedy made by Eastern Europeans.

These five films all strike me as very unlikely....None of them has any strong base of support, and none of them are universally loved. The dark horse out of these is really the Latvian comedy, of which there is nearly ZERO information online.

ALBANIA's comedy, "East West West" has a winning plot, and I thought it might be a contender. Circa 1990, an Albanian cycling team leaves the reclusive dictatorship for a cycling competition in France. As soon as they make it to Italy, they learn the government has been overthrown and they have to figure out what to do. Reviews have been positive but unenthusiastic.

HUNGARY's film, "Bibliotheque Pascal", is a visually creative film about an Eastern European woman who must recount the fantastical story of how she was trafficked into sexual slavery, in order to regain custody of her child. Sounds like "Big Fish" mixed with "Taken". People like it a lot, or hate it.

The MACEDONIAns have chosen a rather strange film called "Mothers". It premiered at Toronto and features a short about nine-year olds reporting an imaginary flasher, a slightly longer film about a man making a documentary about a small village, and finally a documentary about a serial killer. Too weird.

POLAND's coming-of-age comedy-drama, "All That I Love", has the best chance of the lot, but this likeable Communist-era story about a young man using punk rock music to join in the Solidarity Movement doesn't have enough behind it to make the finals.

LATVIA....Who knows? There's not a single English-language review online. "Hong Kong Confidential" is a fun romantic comedy-drama about six intersecting lives set in Hong Kong and starring an international cast from Hong Kong, Japan, Latvia and Lithuania speaking Japanese, Cantonese and English. Sounds like fun, but not really Oscary.....


6. BOSNIA- “Cirkus Columbia”
5. SERBIA- “Besa”
4. ROMANIA- “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle”

These three Balkan countries aren't likely to make the finals, but they do have a slight shot. BOSNIA has the biggest name....Since winning the Oscar for "No Man's Land" eight years ago, Danis Tanovic has only made three films. His latest, "Cirkus Columbia", is his first return to Bosnian filmmaking since his Oscar win. The film tells the story of a man returning to his home village from Germany in the years just before the Balkan wars. ROMANIA has the highest-profile film, "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle", about a jailed juvenile delinquent at war with his mother. Although it's won many awards and charmed a large minority of film critics, there are plenty of people who are bored by the film, its slow pacing, its long takes and are likely to give it low marks. Also remember that neither Romania nor its New Wave has ever charmed Oscar voters before. It has a slight chance with the Elite Committee, none with the large one. SERBIA's "Besa" (Solemn Promise) is an interesting multi-ethnic drama from what used to be one of the world's most multi-ethnic nations. During World War I, a Serbian principal is called to the frontlines, forcing him to leave his pretty Slovene wife to be protected by his uneducated Albanian manservant (played by a Serb). Their agreement is a besa and the relationship between the three forms the plot of the film. The film is largely an unknown quantity- No major film festivals, no review on Variety, making it difficult to figure out.

All of these films have a VERY uphill battle.


3. RUSSIA- “The Edge”
2. GEORGIA- “Street Days”

The Eastern Europeans have sent a fairly weak group this year....Enemies on the battlefield, Georgia and Russia, have a chance at the shortlist, although I don't think either one can make the Final Five.

As expected, RUSSIA has the bigger film...."The Edge" is a big, expensive film about the highs and lows of life in one of the Soviet Union's Siberian work camps after the deportations in the 1950s. It's filled with big trains, romance and high production values and it has an Oscary story....Good reviews but no one seems to be excited about it.

GEORGIA's "Street Days" is a fascinating, low-budget morality play whose plot reminds me of the brilliant "Klopka", which made the shortlist for Serbia three years ago. A man is blackmailed by corrupt cops who want to extort money from his wealthy friend's son. Faced with a choice of going to jail or framing the teen, this film is said to pack a wallop. Good luck to Georgia to get their second nomination!


1. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Kawasaki’s Rose”

I think Kawasaki's Rose will be the one Eastern European flick to make this year's shortlist. In the film, a popular anti-Communist dissident's life falls apart when it is revealed in the press that had been forced by the Czechoslovakian government to act as a informer decades before. The film has gotten good reviews and Oscar has picked Jan Hrebejk before ("Divided We Fall"). The plot sounds Oscary and it's not a strong year.....

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21

Number of countries participating this year: 17

Number of countries disqualified: None that I know of.

Number of countries opting out: 4 former Soviet republics. ARMENIA and LITHUANIA submitted films last year, but chose not to enter this year, despite having some decent releases. Also absent: UKRAINE (“You, My Joy” will be eligible next year) and Europe’s last dictatorship, BELARUS, which hasn’t submitted a film since 1996. Belarus should have sent the handsome war drama “Brest Fortress”.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many….Two or three, with a few more dark horses.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 14 primary languages: Albanian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Cantonese (!), Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovene. Interestingly enough, the Slovakian film is in Hungarian. Lots of multi-lingual films….the Azeri film features some Russian, the Albanian film has some Italian, the Serbian one features Slovene and Albanian, the Bulgarian film has some Turkish, the Hungarian film features some Romanian and the Latvian film is mostly in Cantonese (with some English and Japanese mixed in).

Highest profile films: Probably ROMANIA’s “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” which won the Silver Bear at Berlin.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: I’m predicting the CZECH REPUBLIC for the third year in a row (although neither of the last two got nominated!)

Longest Shot for a Nomination: ESTONIA’s surreal experimental film, “The Temptation of St. Tony”.

Number of Comedies: Two. ALBANIA and LATVIA, although ESTONIA and POLAND have some comedy elements.

Number of Documentaries: One and a half. SLOVAKIA plus part of MACEDONIA’s three-part film.

Oscar History: The race features one former Oscar winner- BOSNIA’s Danis Tanović who won the 2002 Foreign Film Award for “No Man’s Land”, and two former nominees- CZECH REPUBLIC’s Jan Hrebejk (“Divided We Fall”) and MACEDONIA’s Milcho Manchevski (“Before the Rain”).

Albania’s Gjergj Xhuvani (“Slogans”), Hungary’s Szabolcs Hajdu (“White Palms”), Latvia’s Maris Martinsons (“Loss”) and Russia’s Alexei Uchitel (“His Wife’s Diary”) have participated in the Oscar race before, although Martinsons competed for his adopted country of Lithuania.

Eight of the seventeen countries have been nominated before (including Serbia, whose filmmakers got many nominations as Yugoslavia).

Number of Female Directors: None. :(

Familiar Faces: No household names...Japanese actress Kaori Momoi (“Memories of a Geisha”, “Kagemusha”) co-stars in the Latvian submission….Alexander Mashkov (“Behind Enemy Lines”) stars in the Russian one….Bosnian actor Emir Hadzihafizbegovic stars in his tenth Oscar submission (this time, for Croatia).

Tough Choices: The biggest snub was “How I Ended This Summer”, which was the favorite for RUSSIA, although the “one-film-per-country rule” meant an early exit for massive period drama “Tsar” and critical flop “Burnt by the Sun 2”. The other big snub was ROMANIA’s “Tuesday Before Christmas”….In any other year, “On the Path” would have been a shoo-in for BOSNIA...My pick for SERBIA, “The Woman With a Broken Nose”, lost by one vote and my pick for LATVIA, “Rudolf’s Gold” was also the runner-up….Others that missed the list “Three Seasons in Hell” from CZECH REPUBLIC, “Dark House” and “Little Rose” from POLAND, and call-girl drama “Slovenka” from SLOVENIA.

Controversies and Changes: No big stories from this part of the world. The best I can do is CROATIA, which picked a controversial film about war crimes committed by Croatian forces during the Balkan wars. RUSSIA was able to avoid a controversy when three-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Nikita Mikhalkov pulled his poorly reviewed “Burnt By the Sun 2” from consideration for the Russian slot. Many had predicted that Mikhalkov’s stature and stellar Oscar record, and the fact that the first film had won the 1995 Oscar, would mean that, despite poor reviews, the film would rep Russia.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I did very well! 9 out of 17!! (Namely, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia) plus I had “Besa” as my Serbian alternate. …..However, I’ll admit I’d never even heard of the films from Azerbaijan, Latvia, Russia or Slovakia before they were selected.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the nominees from BULGARIA (C-), ESTONIA (D) and SLOVAKIA (B+) at this year’s EU Film Festival in Washington, DC, and was somewhat disappointed. There are quite a few intriguing films on the roster, but if I could only pick one, I’d choose ALBANIA’s “East West East” since I enjoyed Xhuvani’s “Slogans” and the plot (an Albanian cycling team is confused as to what to do when their government is overthrown while they are abroad in Italy) sounds like a lot of fun. Runner-ups for me: GEORGIA’s morality play, “Street Days” and LATVIA’s Asian comedy “Hong Kong Confidential”.

Last year's race: I only managed to see 3 of last year’s 17 films. Disturbing SLOVENIAn thriller (“Landscape No. 2”) was a flawed film, but it was also great bloody fun to watch, and managed to make the audience jump (B+). It was far better than POLAND’s high-concept dramedy “Reverse” (B-), which had a great idea but only so-so follow-thru, and ARMENIA’s boring 50-minute documentary, “Autumn of the Magician” (D). I hope to see the nominees from ESTONIA (DVD) and ROMANIA (Netflix) before the end of the year. Eastern Europe didn’t crack the Top Five last year, although Bulgaria made the shortlist.