Last and certainly not least are the Western European countries, whose films tend to dominate the Oscar nominations....though with so many countries competing, their share of the nominations seems to dwindle every year....Last year, they got four of the nine spots on the shortlist, and the year before, only two.
Whereas most of the Asian, South American and Eastern European countries seem to enter films to promote their film industries and to compete alongside the best, most of the European countries enter to win a nomination. Nine of these countries have won the award in the past (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland), four more have racked up multiple nominations (Belgium, Greece, Norway and the UK) and two of the smaller countries (Finland & Iceland) have scored a single nod apiece. Only perennial bridesmaid Portugal and tiny Luxembourg have never scored here.....Luxembourg has a baity film, so we'll see if they can make it this year....
17. GREECE- "Slaves in Their Bonds"
16. SWEDEN- "The Involuntary"
15. BELGIUM- "The Misfortunates"
These three mid-size European countries simply do not have realistic contenders this year.....The Belgians have selected a vulgar, crass drama with a wicked sense of humor, called "The Misfortunates". It's about a group of deadbeat, alcoholic brothers helping to raise their 10-year old nephew and it's probably most famous for several scenes of nude biking, which the director and cast humorously re-enacted at the Cannes Film Festival. Reviews haven't been bad, but the rough characters aren't beloved by all.....The Greeks haven't been nominated since the 1978 Oscars, and "Slaves in their Bonds", a period romance about a cash-poor landowner marrying off his daughter to settle his debts, and set on the beautiful island of Corfu, hasn't gotten very good reviews, and Variety confirms it hasn't got a chance here. The Swedes waver between Oscar-friendly and Oscar-unfriendly movies, and this year they've chosen a very divisive one that many people dislike- "The Involuntary". A series of five vignettes that I don't think end up linked together, the stories features odd lensing with characters out of frame(similar to BOLIVIA), and a series of situations (stripping, touching teenagers...straight guys playing a sexual joke on a male friend) that do their best to make the viewer uncomfortable....Some people love the film, but it's definitely too divisive for a nomination here.
TOO MUCH COMPETITION TO BREAK OUT
14. ICELAND- "Reykjavik-Rotterdam"
13. FINLAND- "Letters to Father Jacob"
12. PORTUGAL- "Doomed Love"
11. UNITED KINDGOM- "Afghan Star"
10. SWITZERLAND- "Home"
Kudos to all five of these countries. I think that all five made a smart selection based on what they had this year (though Switzerland would have done better to choose "Marcello, Marcello"), and all five of these films are supposed to be thought-provoking impressive stories. FINLAND has chosen a quiet fable about a surly, convicted murderess who reluctantly becomes the assistant to a blind preacher in rural Finland. ICELAND has chosen an action-comedy-thriller about smugglers. PORTUGAL has chosen a modern redux of "Romeo & Juliet" (actually based on a 19th century novel) about class-crossed lovers. SWITZERLAND has chosen a quirky comedy-drama about a family whose idyllic home becomes a nightmare due to the construction of an interstate highway. THE UNITED KINGDOM made a most surprising decision to send acclaimed an Afghan documentary (directed by a British woman) about Afghanistan's hit version of "American Idol" (Pop Idol).
I think the Oscar committee will enjoy all of these films for different reasons, and I'd love to get the opportunity to swee any of them. However, I doubt any will have the "oomph" to make the shortlist. ICELAND and BRITAIN will be handicapped by their genres..."Reykjavik-Rotterdam" is supposed to be a fun, thrilling film, but not an Oscar winner. "Afghan Star" is moving, but ("Waltz with Bashir" notwithstanding), I don't think a documentary can score here. SWITZERLAND's "Home" has gotten mostly good reviews, but not everyone likes it, and it's probably too weird to make the finals. "Letters from Father Jacob", clocking in at a sparse 74 minutes, is too slight to make the cut....As for poor Portugal, "Doomed Love" is supposed to be much better than their recent run of Oscar disasters....but despite positive word of mouth, there's nothing to make me think it can make the finals....
FACING AN UPHILL BATTLE
9. SPAIN- "The Dancer and the Thief"
8. DENMARK- "Terribly Happy"
7. AUSTRIA- "For a Moment, Freedom"
SPAIN. Not good enough.
DENMARK. Not serious enough.
AUSTRIA. Not "big" enough.
Spain is usually a powerhouse in the category, but this was a bad year for Spanish cinema...."Broken Embraces" wouldn't have been that much of a contender either. "The Dancer and the Thief" is supposed to be a harmless, pleasant enough film.....and American critics have been kinder than European ones, but the film's not well-liked enough for a nomination....Then again, the same director won for "Belle Epoque" (also an average, pleasant film).
Denmark's "Terribly Happy" is a black comedy in the style of the Coen Brothers that has been chosen for a US remake. I think it's just the wrong genre to succeed her.e
Austria's obscure "For A Moment, Freedom" is a well-reviewed film about Iranian refugees trying to reach Europe via Turkey. It's supposed to have a lot of Oscary qualities- bittersweet, emotional, funny, sad....and a similarly themed film won this category for neighboring Switzerland's "Journey of Hope" back in 1990. I don't think it's on a grand-enough scale to make an impact here, but Austria's been on a roll the past two years, so it could surprise....
DARK HORSES FROM THE LOW COUNTRIES
6. LUXEMBOURG- "Refractaire"
5. THE NETHERLANDS- "Winter in Wartime"
Nobody is really talking about these two low-key dramas from the Low Countries, but they have what this committee usually goes for- young people suffering through the indignities of World War II. "Winter in Wartime", about a 16-year old joining the Dutch resistance, was the Netherlands' second choice, but it's probably a better choice than the African drama they originally chose. "Refractaire" tells the world about an interesting part of tiny Luxembourg's World War II history. After Germany occupied the tiny Dutchy, they ordered young men to be conscripted into the German army, forcing many young teens into hiding. "Wartime" could surprise...."Refractaire" may be too small to compete here, but there's so little about it on the Internet that it's difficult to tell.....
REAL THREATS FROM THE EUROPEAN SUPERPOWERS
4. ITALY- "Baaria"
3. GERMANY- "The White Ribbon"
2. FRANCE- "A Prophet"
Three of the four European cinema superpowers stand a good chance at getting on Oscar's shortlist this year. (Spain doesn't). FRANCE is nearly certain to get a place in the next round because it's prison drama, "A Prophet". will appeal to both the large and small committee. The story of a young French-Arab petty criminal becoming a crime lord in prison has gotten great reviews, and France is very savvy at choosing its films....If it doesn't make the Top Six in the large committee (and I think it will), it will almost certainly be snapped up by the elite committee for one of the remaining three slots. Clocking in at nearly three hours, ITALY's "Baaria" is a light-hearted and nostaglic homage to growing up in small-town Sicily by Oscar winner Giuseppe Tornatore. The film has gotten decidely bad reviews in Europe, but American critics have been kinder and Oscar has shortlisted ALL THREE of Tornatore's previous Oscar submissions ("Cinema Paradise" won the award). The sentimental, good-hearted film has a good chance of making the Top Six with the big group....but if not, the elite committee will pass. GERMANY's "The White Ribbon", by auteur Michael Haneke, won the Palme d'Or Cannes Film Festival and is an intelligent, and thought-provoking look at the origins of World War I and World War II. While the film will probably miss out on the Top Six in the bigger committee, the elite committee, seeking to avoid embarrassment, will make sure it makes the list.
LOCK FOR THE SHORTLIST
1. NORWAY- "Max Manus"
First of all, this film is the biggest WWII film on the list, so based on past history, it's in.....It's well known that nothing "turns on" the Foreign Oscar committee than a big World War II film...."Max Manus", the big-scale biography of a leader of the little-known Norwegian resistance who sabotaged German supply lines and ships in occupied Norway, has also garnered very good reviews across the board. So I think it's in. I've seen the film, and I think it's a well-made, well-acted exceptionally AVERAGE film. Sounds like "The Counterfeiters"....It's definitely in, damn it.
With a comination of
Now, the statistics:
Number of countries invited: 18
Number of countries participating: 17
Number of countries disqualified: None.
Number of countries opting out: Only IRELAND, which didn't have any foreign-language features.
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Surprisingly few...Probably five to seven
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 13. Three films are in French (France, Luxembourg and Switzerland), two in Dutch (Belgium, Netherlands) and somewhat shockingly, two films are mostly in Persian! (Austria and the UK). Also, one each in Danish, Finnish, German, Greek, Icelandic, Norwegian, Portuguese, Sicilian, Spanish and Swedish. Interestingly enough, the films from Belgium and Denmark are in dialects that make it difficult even for locals to understand.
Highest profile films: Definitely Germany's Cannes winner, "The White Ribbon", followed closely by France's "A Prophet".
Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: NORWAY's WWII drama "Max Manus"
Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: GREECE's poorly reviewed period melodrama, "Slaves in their Bonds"
Number of Comedies: 3- Italy plus Denmark and Iceland which both selected black comedy-thrillers...Belgium and Switzerland have comedic elements to their stories.
Oscar History: Two past Oscar winners have films competing. Italy's Giuseppe Tornatore won the 1990 Oscar for "Cinema Paradiso", and he was also nominated for "The Starmaker" and shortlisted for "La Sconosciuta". Spain's Fernando Trueba won the 1994 Foreign Oscar for "Belle Epoque". Also, Klaus Härö represented Finland in 2003 and 2005, Michael Haneke (representing Germany this year) represented Austria four times between 1989-2005 and Mario Barroso represented Portugal once before in 2004. 15 out of 17 countries have been nominated before.....Luxembourg and Portugal are both waiting for their first Oscar nods....
Number of Female Directors: Two- Havana Marking (UK) and Ursula Meier (Switzerland)
Familiar Faces: The biggest name is France's Isabelle Huppert, who plays the lead role in Switzerland's "Home". Ricardo Darin (Argentina) and Ariadna Gil (Spain) co-star in Spain's "The Dancer and the Thief", and Monica Bellucci has a small part in Italy's "Baaria"....Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, a famous actor in Iceland, co-stars in his sixth Icelandic submission.....Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur (The Sea) and Norwegian director Petter Naess (Elling) co-star in their respective national submissions.....They may not be household names, but two of my favorite foreign actors- Austria's Susanne Lothar and Swedish-Lebanese actor Fares Fares- co-star in the German and Austrian nominees respectively.
Tough Choices: The biggest snubs were a trio of well-reviewed biopics- "John Rabe", a WWII drama set in China was short-listed by GERMANY, Audrey Tautou's "Coco avant Chanel" which gave "Un Prophete" a run for its money to represent FRANCE, and "Vincere" which was the runner-up to represent ITALY. Also out early was Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces". "Marcello, Marcello" SHOULD HAVE been selected to represent SWITZERLAND, since "Home" is rather divisive.....Other than those, "Dogtooth" was expected to represent GREECE.....BELGIUM could have opted for "Loft", DENMARK for "Deliver Us From Evil", and NETHERLANDS for "The Storm"....Spain and Sweden, two great film-making countries, had unusually weak years, and Iceland had but a single eligible film.....
Controversies and Changes: THE NETHERLANDS kept going back and forth this year....First, they chose "Silent Army", but producers of rival films protested that the film wasn't eligible for a number of reasons, and was a poor choice because it was a bad film. The director of "Silent Army" kvetched that he was hurt by the harsh treatment, Holland Film decided to withdraw the film and reconvene to choose a new film. The committee met again and nominated "Silent Light" a second time. By that time, AMPAS had been asked for an advisory opinion, and it turned out that "Silent Light" was indeed ineligible (too much English dialogues and having been screened in a different version in the Netherlands)....The Netherlands chose "Winter in Wartime" as a replacement, and nobody was particularly happy....Other than that, AUSTRIA was reportedly irked when GERMANY announced that "The White Ribbon" would represent them in late August. Having chosen Michael Haneke films four times before, Austria argued that "The White Ribbon" was theirs to submit. Greece changed their nomination procedures this year, dropping the requirement that the Greek winner at the Thessaloniki Film Festival automatically get the spot.....Internet rumors swore that GREECE was sending "Dogtooth" but these proved false when they announced "Slaves in Their Bonds". SPAIN got a lot of heat for not even placing "Broken Embraces" on their three-film shortlist.
Number of countries I predicted correctly: Woops! Only three- Finland, Italy and Luxembourg, although I also predicted "White Ribbon" for the wrong country (Austria). I came incredibly close to getting Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, which were all tough. The movie I predicted for Iceland didn't premiere, but it will probably get selected next year.
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: So far, I've only seen "Max Manus", which is fairly good. I'm quite excited to see the engaging British documentary, "Afghan Star". Out of the fiction films, "Reykjavik-Rotterdam" would be my first choice.
Last year's race: I saw the Oscar-nominated film from France, as well as the also-rans from Belgium, Denmark and Iceland. France definitely had the strongest film of the four.