Friday, December 23, 2011

2011-2012 OSCAR FOREIGN FILMS- Eastern Europe (16 Films)

After two weeks travelling abroad, here are my predictions for the films from Eastern Europe.

The Eastern Europeans have recently had a very poor record in this category. Since their last win in 2001 (Bosnia's "No Man's Land"), they have received only three nominations in the following nine years (for "Katyn", "12" and "Zelary") and their prospects aren't much better this year, although Poland should manage to squeak onto the final list.

Perhaps of interest- three of the films are in Black and White....

16. SLOVENIA- “Circus Fantasticus”

Even if were not for the error of a Slovenian secretary (He or she was apparently a new employee and forgot to send the film to AMPAS headquarters in Los Angeles after the Slovenians selected the film”), “Circus Fantasticus” (aka “Silent Sonata”) would not have been nominated for an Oscar. The film is an abstract drama with no dialogue, about a travelling circus that appears out of nowhere in an unnamed wartorn country, and seeks shelter with a local Balkan family whose mother has just been killed in a battle. It’s likeable enough as an anti-war film, but out of its league here. Still, I wonder if that secretary still has his/her job!


15. ALBANIA- "Amnesty"
14. ESTONIA- "Letters to Angel"
13. MACEDONIA- "Punk's Not Dead"
12. CROATIA- "72 Days"

These four low-profile films have won few major awards and have not received the kindest reviews....ALBANIA's "Amnesty" was not even the country's first choice for the Albanian Oscar nod (See Controversies), and this film about a man and woman who connect sexually while visiting their respective spouses in jail is said to be fairly slow, uninvolving and inconsequential. ESTONIA's "Letters to Angel" is about an Estonian convert to Islam who returns to his country to search for his daughters, years after deserting during the Soviet war. This surreal, dream-like film apparently has no linear plot line that makes sense, and the film has not played at a single major Film Festival. The former Yugoslav republics of CROATIA and MACEDONIA have both sent mean-spirited black comedies about life in the post-war era. CROATIA's "72 Days" is about a family of Croatian Serbs who scheme to continue getting pension checks despite their elderly family member's death. Sounds really good, but reviews have been decidedly mixed. The Macedonians were the surprise winners of Karlovy Vary with "Punk's Not Dead", about a racist, foul-mouthed, over-the-hill Macedonian punk band who reunite for one last gig in a (gasp!) ethnic Albanian region of the country. It's supposed to be earthy and entertaining, but with low production values and few Oscar attributes. None of these films will have any shot at the Oscar.


11. SERBIA- "Montevideo, God Bless You!"
10. LITHUANIA- "Back to Your Arms"
9. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Alois Nebel"
8. ROMANIA- "Morgen"

The CZECH REPUBLIC is usually a major contender in this category, but they dashed their chances by dumping a series of well-regarded films for a strange B&W cartoon called "Alois Nebel", based on a series of graphic novels. "Alois Nebel" is about a train dispatcher in Communist Czechoslovakia who witnessed severe abuses during WWII. I know the Czechs are very proud of their tradition of animation, but this uncomfortable film may be too unpleasant to watch AND depend too much on national history, while also turning off those who feel animated films don't belong here. The film is also lobbying for a Best Animated Film Oscar nod.

ROMANIA and SERBIA haven't been nominated but they're rumored to have come very close....This year, however, I don't fancy their chances. SERBIA' feel-good patriotic comedy, "Montevideo, God Bless You!" about the 1930 World Cup was a box-office smash in its home country, but reviews overseas haven't been as kind....ROMANIA's "Morgen", a topical drama about a rural couple who decide to help an illegal Turkish immigrant escape to Europe, has a better shot, but Romania has failed to be nominated for much bigger and much more acclaimed films....I think "Morgen" will be far too quiet to qualify.

These three regional powers are joined in this tier by the LITHUANIAns, who have opted for the winner of their 2011 National Film Awards (the Silver Cranes), "Back to Your Arms". There's very little information about this film online except that it's based on a true story which concerns a father and daughter separated in World War II and divided by the Iron Curtain, who then attempt to meet up in 1961 Berlin. The film has not "popped" and should be considered a long shot despite its weighty subject matter.


7. HUNGARY- "The Turin Horse"
5. SLOVAKIA- "Gypsy"
4. GEORGIA- "Chantrapas"

Underdogs Bosnia, Georgia and Slovakia have all selected well-received films that are probably going to get overlooked this year. From the Balkans comes "Belvedere" from BOSNIA, a sad film about women who continue to look for information on male relatives (sons, brothers, husbands) who were killed in the Srebenica massacre, years after the conflict. From the Caucasus comes "Chantrapas" (Russian for "good-for-nothing"), a breezy French-language film about a Georgian filmmaker's efforts to deal with political and commercial pressures in his career, ranging from Soviet-era censorship in his native Georgia, to capitalist pressure for box-office success in his adopted France. From the Tatras of Eastern Slovakia comes "Gypsy", a Romany-language drama representing SLOVAKIA. The film is a gypsy take on "Hamlet", combining a teen's coming-of-age story with an inside look at Roma culture, political prejudices, violence, morality and fatherly ghosts.

Reviews for Bosnia's heart-wrenching film note that it is a difficult one to watch...I've seen the Slovak film and it's a very good one, though not a likely nominee.....Georgia's ode to filmmaking is likely to appeal to the Oscar committee, though nobody seems to say it's the best film of the year.

As for HUNGARY and their lumbering "Turin Horse", I think that it would place dead last if the regular committee was voting. Two and a half hours of excrutiatingly slow B&W footage of peasant misery (I've heard twenty minutes is spent on boiling potatoes), this is not a mainstream film, and this does not have mainstream appeal. I'm putting it at #7 on the off chance that the Elite Committee likes it....but I doubt it.


3. BULGARIA- "Tilt"
2. RUSSIA- "Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel"

Both of these films would represent a major surprise if they were shortlisted, but for very different reasons. RUSSIA's "Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel" (which, confusingly, is actually the third film in the "Burnt by the Sun" series) was a critical and financial failure in its native Russia, but I think it was not such a foolish choice. Nikita Mikhalkov has never failed to make the shortlist before, and the big-budget war drama is technically impressive, which will appeal to some of the technical members of the committee. Many committee voters will probably fondly remember the first film, which won in 1995 (though they may struggle to fill in the gaps by missing the second film, "Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus") and the World War II theme is always a Foreign Film favorite. In the end, I think "Burnt" will fail to make the cut, but it's not an automatic out, despite its critical drubbing.

As for BULGARIA, "Tilt" is a very different animal....A relatively obscure, somewhat low-budget teen feature set against the backdrop of the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, "Tilt" is often compared to the Shakespearean Romeo & Juliet. The film has quietly been making a name for itself and most people really do seem to like the film. I don't really think "Tilt" will make the shortlist, but I have a feeling it will place fairly well in the rankings.


1. POLAND- "In Darkness"

Realistically speaking, POLAND is probably the only Eastern European country that can expect to be on January's 9-film shortlist. Agnieszka Holland has a strong record with Oscar and the film practically shouts Oscar nominee with its plot featuring 1- World War II, 2- Jewish characters and 3- cute children in peril. "In Darkness" is a dark, heavy drama about a self-interested Catholic rogue who ends up helping Jews who are trying to escape Nazi deportations by hiding in the sewers of Lviv (now in Ukraine, but then part of Poland). Lots of moral dilemmas, conflicted characters and well-crafted cinematography will probably push this film to the next round.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21

Number of countries participating this year: 16

Number of countries disqualified: Slovenia, which forgot to actually send their official submission to Los Angeles.

Number of countries opting out: 5- ARMENIA, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Latvia and Ukraine...UKRAINE actually convened an Oscar selection committee, but determined that no film met all of the AMPAS requirements (not sure why Cannes feature “You My Joy” wasn’t eligible). AZERBAIJAN and LATVIA sent films last year and had some definite possibilities (especially “Through the Eyes of a Ghost”, by Rustam Ibragimbekov who co-wrote three foreign Oscar nominees, and Latvia’s baity WWII film “Three to Dance”), so not sure why they aren’t participating. Isolated BELARUS hasn’t submitted a film since 1996.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Very few. I’d say four and that’s being very generous.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 13 primary languages- Albanian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, French, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Romany, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, with a smattering of Turkish (in the Romanian film), German, Ukrainian and Yiddish (all Poland), Georgian and Slovak. The Slovenian film has no dialogue.

Highest profile film: Probably Russia’s highly touted flop “Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel”, which is famous for its lack of success and for being the second sequel to the 1995 Oscar winner. Hungary’s “Turin Horse” and Poland’s “In Darkness” are most famous based on their actual reviews, while Estonia's film has virtually no information online whatsoever.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Poland.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Albania, which was forced to send its second-place film.

Number of Comedies: Three from the former Yugoslavia- Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia.

Number of Animated Films: One, from the Czech Republic.

Number of Documentaries or Horror Films: None.

Oscar History: Two Oscar nominees are in the mix- Poland’s Agnieszka Holland has been nominated twice- once for Best Foreign Film (representing West Germany) for “Angry Harvest” at the 1986 Oscars and once for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1992 Oscars for “Europa Europa”. Nikita Mikhalkov was nominated for three Foreign Language Film Oscars in 1993, 1995 and 2008, winning on his second try for “Burnt by the Sun”.

Martin Sulik is representing his country for the sixth time after Oscar runs in 1993, 1995, 1997 2000 and 2005. Disqualified entrant Janez Burger from Slovenia previously represented his country in 2005 for “The Ruins”.

Four countries have won the Oscar nominations for their countries (Bosnia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia) while three others have been nominated (Georgia, Macedonia and Poland) and two others (Bulgaria and Serbia) have been short-listed. Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia have never been nominated since becoming independent, but their films have been nominated as part of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Albania, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia and, surprisingly, Romania have had no luck yet with Oscar.

Number of Female Directors: Only one...Poland’s Agnieszka Holland.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: France-based Georgian director Otar Iosseliani is 77, while Romania’s Marian Crisan is 35.

Familiar Faces: Very few that would be familiar to Western audiences...Dedicated film viewers are most likely to recognize actor Rade Šerbedžija (Mission Impossible 2, Batman Begins) who stars in his son’s “72 Days”, although there’s also German actor Benno Fürmann in “In Darkness” plus director Nikita Mikhalkov who co-stars in his own “Burnt by the 2”.

Tough Choices: I thought the 2012 winner for Best Foreign Language Film would be the Czech Republic’s critically acclaimed drama “Lidice”, but the Czechs prevented that from happening when they selected peculiar adult cartoon “Alois Nebel” instead...Also eliminated in the preliminaries: “Identity Card” from Czech Republic, “The House” from Slovakia (Berlin), “Medal of Honor” from Romania and “Elena” from Russia.

Controversies and Changes: Eastern Europe provided the two biggest controversies of the year.

ALBANIA initially selected “The Forgiveness of Blood”, a film in Albanian, shot in Albania with an American director (Joshua Marston), and a mixed American and Albanian crew. It was no surprise that AMPAS disqualified “Blood”; they did the same thing to Marston’s similarly filmed “Maria, Full of Grace”, which Colombia selected in 2004. AMPAS is pretty resolute that “Best Foreign Language Film” means the film must be both “Foreign” (i.e., not American) and in a “Foreign Language” (i.e., not in English). I think it’s fair to exclude English-language films (subtitled movies are definitely a different animal than British, Canadian and Australian films in English...I would hate to see this category dominated by “King’s Speech”, “Moulin Rouge” and “Lord of the Rings”, even if they are good films!) but any foreign-language film should be eligible, even if the director does happen to have a US passport. In fact, a number of international directors are American citizens, Green Card holders, or otherwise based in the U.S., so this is really unfair. The worst part is that it was rival director Buraj Alimani who reportedly complained to the Academy that "Blood" should be barred from the category. Alimani is a sore loser who wanted his own film to be selected (his “Amnesty” was the runner-up and is now representing Albania), at the expense of the hard work of the Albanian actors and crew of the film that an impartial jury of Albanian filmmakers selected as the best Albanian film of the year. Marston himself said it best: ““I don't understand why the academy is in the business of adjudicating the citizenship of a film. Why can’t the submitting countries be given the authority and autonomy to decide for themselves what films best represent them? Why would it be so threatening to the process of the academy to let that happen?”

RUSSIA also caused controversy when they selected a critically lambasted flop over two more acclaimed films. The selection of "Burnt by the Sun 2: Ctadel" over "Elena" (winner, Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2001) and "Faust" (winner, Golden Lion, Venice) was rumored to be strongly influenced by director Nikita Mikhalkov's connections within the selection committee. The President of the Committee refused to sign the decision and called for Mikhalkov to withdraw his film from consideration so that a better regarded film could take the Russian spot. Others also claimed that it was ridiculous to choose a sequel that depended so much on seeing the previous film (even Oscar voters who remember the 1995 winner "Burnt by the Sun" probably won't have seen the second film in the series, 2010's "Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus"). I actually think that the high production values of "Burnt" mean it's not such a bad choice overall, but the reasons why it was chosen seem surely politically influenced.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 7- ALBANIA, ESTONIA, HUNGARY, LITHUANIA, MACEDONIA, SLOVAKIA and SLOVENIA, plus I picked Croatia’s film last year when I thought it was eligible. Bonus points for Albania, since I predicted they would try to send “Forgiveness of Blood” but end up sending “Amnesty”. CZECH REPUBLIC was the only country that took me completely by surprise.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the Slovak (B+) and Slovene (B-) films, but I’m most excited to see Croatian black comedy ”72 Days”.

Last year's race: I saw 8 of last year’s 17 contenders, and the best was without a doubt Georgia’s “Street Days”, followed by Albania’s “East West East”. Estonia’s “St. Tony” was one of the worst films I saw last year, while Bulgaria and Poland weren’t much better.

Next up (after the holidays): the 16 films from Asia.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

2011-2012 OSCAR FOREIGN FILMS- Western Europe (17 Films)

Well, here is the first batch of predictions where we look at the 17 films from Western Europe. The Western Europeans used to dominate this category, but they have lost momentum in recent years as films from Latin America and the Middle East have been grabbing a growing number of spots.

Despite the 65 films in competition, I think this will be a rather weak year, especially for Europe.


17. GREECE- “Attenberg”
16. SWITZERLAND- “Summer Games”
15. ITALY- “Terraferma”
14. PORTUGAL- “Jose and Pilar”
13. UK- “Patagonia”

Middling reviews will doom the two Italian-language films (from Italy and Switzerland) to oblivion, the UK’s film lacks “oomph”, Portugal’s is the wrong genre, while Greece’s film is too weird and divisive (although I said last year, when they DID get nominated!).
GREECE's “Attenberg” is an experimental black comedy that involves a strange young adult girl experimenting with kissing and making animal noises. The film has all of the quirkiness of last year’s surprise nominee “Dogtooth” without that film’s (inexplicable) good reviews. Not everybody dislikes “Attenberg”, but a lot of people do, and this will keep this film at the bottom of the charts this year.
“Patagonia”, “Summer Games” and “Terraferma” simply don’t have good enough reviews to advance to the next round. Switzerland's “Summer Games” was the surprise winner of the Swiss Oscar competition, which takes into account votes from the public. It’s a dark drama about parents and their teenaged children on a holiday by the sea. A disturbing first hour (which I’ve heard includes the killing of an animal) apparently turns off a lot of viewers before an eventual cathartic ending, but by then it may be too late. It’s also by far the lowest-profile and most obscure film from Western Europe this year, making it likely to get lost in the shuffle. Italy's “Terraferma” is a baity film about illegal African immigrants trying to make it to Europe, and an Italian family who may or may not try to assist them. However, reviews have been surprisingly poor and no one seems to like the movie. The UK's “Patagonia”, a quirky film that features two stories about cross-cultural connections in Wales and Argentina (an old Argentinian woman returns to her ancestral village in Wales...Welsh tourists visit Argentina) has slightly better reviews, but most people prefer one story over another and though it's a good film they say it's also uneven, overlong and out of its league here.
“Jose and Pilar” (PORTUGAL), has actually gotten excellent reviews, but its subject matter- a renowned Portuguese Nobel Laureate and author- is not likely to resonate as much with an Oscar committee that is looking for high drama and strong production values (remember...a lot of voters come from the technical branches...), and they(like me...) may not be familiar with Jose Saramago and his wife. Still, it’s said to be an accomplished documentary (though it failed to make the AMPAS documentary shortlist).


12. DENMARK- “Superclasico”
11. ICELAND- “Volcano”
10. BELGIUM- “Bullhead”
9. SPAIN- “Black Bread”
All four of these films are going to have an uphill climb to an Oscar nod. Returning champion Denmark shocked Oscar prognosticators by choosing a fluffy comedy about a schlub and his teenaged son going to visit his ex-wife in Buenos Aires (who has run off with a hot, young football player). It’s all supposed to be very entertaining, but not much more than that. It’s hoping for an “Everybody Famous”/”Simple Simon” slot on the shortlist.
The other three films are anything but comedies...I’ve seen “Bullhead” (which has the best reviews of the four) but I found this violent noirish and occasionally confusing thriller about provincial Belgians involved with selling hormone drugs to fatten cattle to be pretty inconsequential, although there are clearly many who disagree with me. In the end, I kind of felt like “so what?” Iceland’s “Volcano” seems too downbeat and minimalist to succeed here. It’s the story of an elderly retiree, estranged from his children, whose life is turned upside down when his wife falls ill. This Cannes drama is perhaps best-known for its elderly actors in sex scenes, but I don't see that as helping the film much!
As for “Black Bread” from Oscar powerhouse Spain, the film is said to be an exceptionally accomplished film, but also very confusing to those of us who are not familiar with the post-Civil War era in Spain. The film is a murder mystery/war drama/children’s story/morality tale about a child from the losing side of the Civil War whose father is accused of murder after his son finds a corpse. Oscar loves kids, loves Spain and loves war, but I fear “Bread” may miss out due to context.


8. IRELAND- “As If I Was Not There”
7. SWEDEN- “Beyond”
6. GERMANY- “Pina”
5. NORWAY- “Happy, Happy”
All of these films have a chance at grabbing at one of the lower rungs of the nine-film shortlist, but in the end I think that all of them will miss out.
Ireland’s “As If I Was Not There”, is a wrenching film set in Bosnia, about a Bosniak lady teacher who is rounded up and sexually assaulted by Serbian troops during the Yugoslav wars. Everyone says it’s a powerful piece of work, but its quiet realism may not be able to break through the pack. Also, ever since “No Man’s Land” won the Oscar ten years ago, the Oscars have never shown any interest in the conflicts in the Balkans.
Scandinavia’s “Beyond” and “Happy Happy” have been touted as strong possibilities for the shortlist, but reviews have not been universally strong. “Beyond” looks great on paper as up-and-coming star Noomi Rapace stars as a Swedish wife who reluctantly returns to her visit her dysfunctional and abusive family when her mother falls ill. Its the sort of family drama that Sweden used to be nominated for on a regular basis, but reviews for this female-driven film vary from very good to tepid. It may have better luck at the Globes. “Happy Happy”, a romantic comedy about the relationships of two married couples living next door to each other in rural northern Norway, is a fun film with good performances, but it’s also quite slight (and the a cappella singers got on my nerves...). Still, reviews have been stronger than expected (winning Sundance) and the film has the potential (certainly more than Denmark) to get a “Simple Simon”/”Everybody Famous” sort of nod.

As for Germany’s dance tribute “Pina”, it clearly has the strongest reviews of the four films here, but I think its weird genre-defying format (it’s a documentary! No, it’s a dance concert! No, it’s a 3D movie!) will annoy (bore?) too many in the large committee who feel the film doesn’t belong in this category, and will also fail to be rescued by the elite committee who will prefer to select films with a fiction narrative (but I could be wrong...the elite committee is still an enigma).


4. AUSTRIA- “Breathing”
3. NETHERLANDS- “Sonny Boy”
Austria has chosen a quiet, introspective film (“Breathing”) about a young man serving time in a juvenile detention facility, who finds success at a part-time job working as a mortician’s assistant while dealing with feelings of guilt and loneliness. Although it may be too minimalist and/or cerebral for the Academy, it has gotten very positive reviews and won a minor award at Cannes. The film from the Netherlands, “Sonny Boy”, has not gotten very positive reviews at all. In fact, many critics dislike this film about the taboo relationship between an older, married Dutch woman with a young, black Surinamese in the 1940s, who end up having a baby (Sonny Boy). It ranks 15th of the 17 Western European films on IMDB (it just barely finished ahead of the UK, and way ahead of bottom-ranked Greece) and could not even manage a Best Picture nomination at this year’s Golden Calf Awards in Holland. So, why rank it in third place? The film is total Oscar bait, and the Netherlands knows it. The movie is said to be extremely emotionally involving and exactly the sort of tearjerker that the Oscar committee traditionally goes for. That said, the Oscar committee has been bolder and less traditional in recent years, so pushing their “like” buttons may not be enough anymore. However, like the critically maligned film from Russia, “Sonny Boy” definitely is in with a shot.


2. FINLAND- “Le Havre”
1. FRANCE- “Declaration of War”

Italy has won more Oscars than France (13-12), but French-language films have the edge over Italian-language films (15-12). Chalk it up to the beauty of the French language (or be cynical and say it’s because French is spoken is many more countries) but I think the two Western European films that will be on the Oscar shortlist are the two movies in the French language.
Finland’s “Le Havre” would not have been eligible to represent Finland a few years ago, but a rule change means it is perfectly acceptable for them to send a film filmed in French and set in France. Aki Kaurismaki’s simple comedy of an old man taking in an illegal African immigrant is said to be one of his more accessible (will I like it? I doubt it, but I’ll try to see it in December when it comes out here in Washington DC) and the “old person teaches and learns from young person” is known to be a fetish plot for Oscar voters. It has a good chance of being recognized by either committee, so it doubles its chances.
France’s “Declaration of War” is even more baity. This semi-autobiographical story of a young couple trying to survive an emotional roller-coaster when their infant child is diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer is said to be well-made and well-acted, with a great deal of heart, gentle humor and a heart-tugging plot line. There are no bad reviews out there, and although it has not won any big awards, this has never been an impediment to Oscar, which doesn’t mind ignoring Cannes/Berlin/Venice winners for something more commercial. France was somewhat at a loss as to what to choose this year, but this semi-commercial feature (not made for film festivals) seems to have been a good choice. I think it’s in...

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 19

Number of countries participating this year: 17

Number of countries disqualified: None

Number of countries opting out: GREENLAND, which debuted last year, and LUXEMBOURG which had no eligible films in any of its three native languages.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: It’s a weak year worldwide, so I’d say about half....Maybe, seven.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: The world is getting more and more international with the Finnish film in French, the Irish film in Bosnian and the films from Denmark and the UK (but notably NOT Spain) filmed partially in Spanish. I count 14: Bosnian, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Icelandic, Norwegian, Portuguese, Sicilian, Swedish and Welsh- plus smatterings of Finnish (in the Swedish entry), Italian and Spanish. At least five of the films are multi-lingual (Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, the UK and possibly also Germany).

Spain sent its first-ever Catalan film and Switzerland sent its first-ever film from the Italian community.

Highest profile film: Probably FINLAND’s breezy dramedy “Le Havre” by obnoxious auteur Aki Kaurismaki, although GERMANY’s 3D dancing documentary “Pina” by Wim Wenders has also gotten a lot of buzz.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: France, comme d'habitude.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: GREECE’s uncomfortable black comedy (?) “Attenberg”, whose reviews have been even more divisive than last year’s surprise nominee “Dogtooth”

Number of Comedies: Laugh-out-loud comedies from DENMARK and NORWAY plus FINLAND’s dramedy.

Number of Animated or Horror Films: None.

Number of Documentaries: One and a half. PORTUGAL chose a real documentary (“Jose & Pilar”), while GERMANY’s “Pina” sort of defies description but has generally been competing as a doc (it is also shortlisted for the Oscar documentary award).

Oscar History: Aki Kaurismaki is the only director to have received a nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category, which he got for the over-rated “Man Without A Past” in 2003. However, an impressive three other directors have been nominated in other categories: Germany’s Wim Wenders (Best Documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, 2000), Iceland’s Runar Runarsson (Best Live Action Short, The Last Farm, 2006) and Ireland’s Juanita Wilson (Best Live Action Short, The Door, 2010).

Italy’s Emanuele Crialese (“Nuovomundo”) and Netherlands’ Maria Peters (“Little Crumb”) have both been selected by for the Oscar race once before, as has Spain’s Agusti Villaronga who co-directed Mexico’s 2003 submisson “Aro Tolbukhin”.

Nine of the seventeen countries have won an Oscar, while six others have been nominated. Only Ireland (which has only entered the competition once before) and Portugal (which holds the record for never winning) have never been nominated.

Number of Female Directors: Six! Pernilla August (Sweden), Valerie Donzelli (France), Maria Peters (Netherlands), Anne Sewitsky (Norway), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece) and Juanita Wilson (Ireland). Possibly a record! August is the first woman ever to represent Sweden.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 66-year old Wim Wenders (Germany) is the senior statesman of the group, while 33-year old Miguel Goncalves Mendes (Portugal) is the youngest.

Familiar Faces: The most obvious answer is Swedish “it” girl Noomi Rapace (“The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo” who trades her tattoos and spiked hair for a more conservative look in Sweden’s “Beyond”, although American audiences will also be very familiar with "Patagonia"'s Matthew Rhys who just finished up a five-year run on “Brothers and Sisters". You’re also likely to recognize Sergi Lopez (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) in “Black Bread”, Kati Outinen a.k.a. Aki Kaurismaki’s muse in “Le Havre”, Swedish actor Stellan Starsgard who plays a doctor in the Bosnian-language Irish entry “As If I Was Not There” and Paprika Steen who plays the wife in “Superclasico”. And for those of you who watch the Oscar submission list year after year, Icelandic actors Throstur Leo Gunnarsson and Theodor Juliusson are both starring in their seventh Icelandic Oscar submission.

Tough Choices: Spain had the toughest choice this year, forced to choose between their well-reviewed 2010 Goya winner “Black Bread”, brand-new “The Sleeping Voice” and the latest quirky entry from Pedro Almodovar, “The Skin I Live In”. Almodovar’s plastic surgery horror film probably would have scared off elderly Oscar voters, so I think Spain chose well even if most bloggers disagree. Belgium, Denmark and Portugal have also suffered online criticism for choosing unlikely dark horses (violent, disturbing “Bullhead”, fluffy romantic comedy “Superclasico” and documentary “Jose and Pilar”) over three of the early favorites (“The Kid With A Bike”, one of the the Brothers Dardennes’ more accessible films, baity Danish family drama “A Family” and “Mysteries of Lisbon”, a sumptuous four-hour soap opera). I can confirm that all three of these were stupid moves. Also snubbed: Austria’s child abuse drama “Michael”, France’s period drama “The Princess of Montpensier” (why did nobody bring this up?), Germany’s “The Poll Diaries” (it was shortlisted), Iceland’s 2010 Edda winner “Undercurrent”, Italy’s papal comedy “We Have A Pope” and Norway’s acclaimed “Oslo, August 31st”.

Controversies and Changes: No big controversies, although one of the members of Denmark’s Oscar selection committee (actor Thomas Magnussen) was accused of vote selling when he contacted two of the three shortlisted directors with a CV indicating he was on the Oscar committee. The Danish Film Institute promised to investigate. Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki ended his ridiculous Oscar boycott, though that was not particularly controversial.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Only three- ICELAND, IRELAND and SPAIN. I came super-close with AUSTRIA, where I predicted an upset, and BELGIUM (had “Bullhead” in second place behind “The Kid With a Bike”) and would probably have gotten FINLAND, if I hadn’t thought Kaurismaki would continue his pointless Oscar boycott. I’ll admit the documentaries from GERMANY and PORTUGAL, as well as DENMARK’s “Superclasico” took me completely by surprise.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the one I was really looking forward to seeing (Norway’s “Happy Happy”; B+) plus Belgium’s “so what?” thriller “Bullhead (C), so I guess now my top choices would be Denmark’s silly-but-fun comedy “Superclasico” and Britain’s Welsh drama “Patagonia”.

Last year's race: I’m proud to say I saw 13 of the 16 films submitted last year, missing only Austria (which will be released on DVD in the US next year), Norway and Switzerland. The best were from the films from the Netherlands and Spain, and the worst was the inept film from Portugal.

NEXT: The candidates from Eastern Europe

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Recap: My Views on Last Year's Foreign Oscar Race

Now that we have the official 2012 list, let’s take a look back at last year…..One of the problems with following this category is that most of us don’t get a chance to see the films until a year or so later! This year, I saw 50 of the 66 eligible films. I think the Academy picked mostly good films to be nominated, but they ignored the best ones (as usual). So here’s my chance to let the world know my opinions before we all start predicting next year’s race...

It’s difficult to do a ranking like this…..Of course, the great movies go to the top and the bad movies go to the bottom...But what about well-made films that I didn’t like (France’s “Of Gods and Men”)? Should they go higher or lower than mediocre films that were fun to watch (Korea’s “Barefoot Dream”)?

The American Academy chose nine films for their shortlist….I should note that I’ve only seen eight of these...I never got around to seeing Mexico’s grueling “Biutiful” (the DVD is sitting in my house), but I did see all the other major contenders.

MY OSCAR WINNER: JAPAN, “Confessions”- Hell hath no fury like a Japanese woman scorned...Revenge thriller “Confessions” surprised a lot of people by making the 9-film shortlist, and it amazes me that an entire committee of people could see this intricate, tightly-plotted masterpiece and toss it aside for the likes of a well-made but forgettable film like “Outside the Law”...”Confessions” centers on a Junior High School teacher’s revenge plot against the two students whom she holds responsible for the death of her young daughter. Admittedly, it’s not an easy film to watch. However, my Japanese friends and I barely breathed during the two-hour running time...Tetsuya Nakashima (director of my favorite Japanese film, “Memories of Matsuko”) keeps the twists and turns coming and just when you think you understand everything, you find out how little you actually do. I’d like to say more, but anything else would ruin the plot. This film won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Japanese Oscars and really should have been honored by the American Academy. (Available on English-subtitled DVD in Hong Kong, and via Ebay, Yesasia and other sites) Grade: A

MY RUNNER-UP: PERU, “Contracorriente” (Undertow)- A married man with a loving wife and a brand-new baby in a coastal community in macho Peru is having a secret homosexual affair with a handsome artist from the capital. This alone would be an intriguing plot for a film but Contracorriente defies your expectations by going for a sad ghost story rather than a soapy melodrama. The writers skillfully maintain maximum conflict and suspense without casting anyone as the villain. You sympathize with all three characters in the love-triangle, understanding that there can be no happy ending for everyone but wondering if there can be one for anyone. That said, there’s plenty of humor and whimsy and a satisfying conclusion. I loved the movie when I saw it, but I loved it even more the next day, since I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Peru is two-for-two with quality gay dramas…Also see 1998’s “Don’t Tell Anyone”. (Available on Netflix) Grade: A-

MY OTHER NOMINEES: (3rd Place) GEORGIA, “Street Days”- Georgia’s Street Days proves that you can make a great film with no money, as long as you have strong actors and a strong script. Checkie is a kind-hearted but aimless middle-aged junkie living in post-Communist Georgia. His long-suffering ex-wife barely has enough money to pay for schoolbooks for their son. While Checkie has failed in life, several of his school classmates have done exceedingly well, which leads him into a tragic moral dilemma. A group of corrupt cops blackmail him to either set up a wealthy ex-classmate’s teenage son with drugs (whereupon they’ll blackmail his rich father), or go to jail. A fascinating character study that deserves a wider release. Grade: A-

(4th Place) TAIWAN, “Monga”- I became a gangster because of a chicken leg. This doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning for a movie. I hate gangster movies, and when I heard that this film wasn’t even Taiwan’s first choice for the Oscars (Hear Me was selected but it turned out that film had fibbed about its premiere date) I almost didn’t even bother seeing Monga. That would have been a mistake because this is a visually inventive, bloody, sad, roller-coaster ride of a movie. Despite a clichéd plot (four teens form a gang in 1970s Taipei), the film deals with friendships, gang alliances and revenge killings in a fresh and original way. I loved the film and-- wow- what an ending! (Available on DVD with English subtitles in Hong Kong including Grade: A-

(5th Place) NETHERLANDS, “Tirza”- Yet another surprise, and an example of the reason why I try to see the whole list every year, even if I don’t find the films very intriguing...I didn’t really want to see this film, but I decided to catch it the local EU Film Festival a week ago. This is basically a mystery about a middle-aged Dutch professor in the midst of a midlife crisis, who travels to Namibia to find his missing daughter who disappeared (or did she?) while travelling with an Arab boyfriend. Namibia is an exotic, beautiful and original filming location. The film is very weird and sometimes uncomfortable to watch due to sexual and violent overtones, but it’s a captivating watch, and the solution is there for the viewer to see. (Available on DVD on Region 2 DVD) Grade: A-

“Echoes of the Rainbow”- A intimate family drama set amidst a lower-middle class family in 1960s Hong Kong. The Law family have two sons; 16-year old Desmond is an handsome, overachieving track star, while “Big Ears” is a troublemaking 7-year old. While it doesn’t sound particular exciting, this slice-of-life drama does an excellent job at getting you involved in the life of this family, and the sad reality that tragedy is part of life. The mostly unheralded film treads a dangerous line, but always manages to stay (just barely!) on the right side of sentimental without crossing the line into schmaltz. For those of us who have been to Hong Kong, it’s also a reminder of how much this enclave has changed within one generation. Cinematic highlight: the typhoon. (Available on DVD with English subtitles in Hong Kong, including Grade: A-

7. CANADA, “Incendies”- I think my expectations were too high for Canada’s beautiful and brutal mystery...“Incendies” is about two Canadian twins discovering their late mother’s secret past life during the Lebanese civil war (though Lebanon itself is never mentioned). The film got some of the best reviews of the year, and it’s certainly a great film (miles better than its Oscar competition “Outside the Law” and “Dogtooth”). However, I figured out the mystery fairly early on, and I made the mistake of seeing it with a girl who had seen the play and told me about all the twists and turns that were more effectively plotted on stage. Highly recommended, but it just missed my cut...(Available on Netflix) Grade: A-

8. SPAIN, “Even the Rain”- Bolivia didn’t enter the Oscar competition this year, but Spain’s shortlisted film is an intriguing look at that country’s history, economy and politics. A Spanish film crew travels to Bolivia to make a movie about the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Why landlocked Bolivia? Because it’s the cheapest country to make a movie in. While the filmmakers attempt to make a film about the exploitation of the indigenous people by Spanish conquistadors, indigenous people are being marginalized by a real-life government deal threatening the country’s water resources….I thought the plot sounded dull, but it’s quite well done, and you learn a lot. (Available on Netflix) Grade: B+

9. ISRAEL, “Human Resources Manager”- The body of a Romanian immigrant woman killed in a bus bombing goes unclaimed in a morgue for a week, leading to a scandal when news gets out that her employer, a large bakery, didn’t even notice she was missing. The eponymous HR Manager is assigned by his boss to bring the body back to her native Romania. The disinterested company employee is forced to deal with a host of tragicomic situations involving the woman’s dysfunctional family, and a cadre of Romanian drivers, officials, grannies, villagers and soldiers...Well-done road movie. (Available on Netflix) Grade: B+

10. KAZAKHSTAN, “Strayed”- Kazakhstan’s intriguing “Strayed” plays like a Russian-language version of The Twilight Zone (it’s also eerily similar to “Tirza”). A man is travelling with his wife and son along a barren highway in the middle of nowhere. Waking up from a nap, he finds his wife and son gone without a trace...He comes across a single cottage with an old man and his young wife (daughter?) living there. The mystery of the disappearances of the wife and boy provides the film’s plot, which holds up well upon a second viewing. Like “Dogtooth” and “St. Tony”, this is a divisive film. Unlike those other two, this is a good one. Pay attention to the costumes! (Available with English subtitles on Kazakhstan DVD) Grade: B+

11. ALBANIA, “East, West, East- The Final Sprint”- Yes, Albanians can do comedy! During the waning months of the isolationist Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, the Albanian Government agrees to send their unprepared national cycling team to a competition in France. Upon arriving in Italy, the Government in Tirana falls, leaving the team stranded without cash and desperate to return home by bicycle, through Italy and Yugoslavia. I really liked this movie. (Available on with English subtitles) Grade: B+

12. HUNGARY , "Bibliotheque Pascal"- It's weird, original and definitely not for everyone. "Pascal"'s bizarre story of a Romanian woman trafficked to England for prostitution in a high-class brothel boasts surrealism that advances the story, unlike some other pretentious films on the list (yes, Khun Boonmee). I actually this could have been a truly great film if the film had gone the way of "Big Fish" or "Alice in Wonderland", but as it is, it's very good. I'm glad I saw it despite the many negative reviews. (Available on Netflix streaming) Grade: B+

13. DENMARK, “In A Better World”- Of course, this was the eventual Oscar winner, so I don’t need to say much about the plot, which focuses on the disturbing friendship between two bullied 12-year olds in Denmark, and their complicated relationships with their fathers. It's a morality tale done rather well, but although it’s a fine film with fine acting and writing that I would certainly recommend, I don’t think it was the best film in the race. Incidentally, neither did the Danes...It didn’t even get a Best Picture nod at their national film awards. (Available on Netflix) Grade: B+

14. INDIA, “Peepli (Live)”- A messy black comedy about an indebted farmer. Poor Natha is a heavily indebted farmer in fictional Mukhya Pradesh who learns that his impoverished family will receive a large compensation payment if he were to commit suicide. His family are an unsympathetic lot- a conniving brother, foul-mouthed mother, domineering wife and bratty kids. Natha doesn’t want to die, but his brother brags to the village that Natha will soon kill himself to get his family out of debt. Whether Natha will live or die soon becomes a national media circus, and India's tabloid media descends on the tiny rural town of Peepli, with bureaucrats, Mafioso, villagers and reporters debating the worth of his life. Farmer suicides are a very real issue in India...My only complaint is that the film takes its sweet time to get to where its going...Once it does the audience is laughing and then feeling guilty for laughing. (Available on Netflix) Grade: B.

15. CHILE, “The Life of Fish”- A talky relationship drama about a devastatingly handsome Chilean expat living in Germany, and the now-married woman he broke up with years before...The two meet up seemingly by chance at a party in Santiago and they may or may not still be in love (if they ever were in love in the first place...) It’s a little slow and not as good as the director’s “En la Cama” (which Chile submitted in 2003), but director Bize has a talent for real-life dialogue. A rather dull subplot about the death of a friend slows things down a few times, but the ending is a memorable one. Grade: B.

16. ICELAND, “Mamma Gogo”- A sad comedy about Alzheimer’s disease, “Mamma Gogo” is essentially an autobiographical film based on director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s filmmaking career, and his relationship with his mother. Kristianbjorg Kjell gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the increasingly frustrated “Gogo” whose comically confused antics slowly give way to anger and frustration about her illness. One gimmick that I didn’t get until the ending credits were that flashbacks to her (as a beautiful young woman) and her husband are actually scenes of actress Kjell from a film she made in 1962. The film is slow, but never tedious, with a great deal of heart. Grade: B

17. BOSNIA,'s "Cirkus Columbia- A well-made family drama set in 1991 in an ethnic Croatian town in Bosnia-Herzegovina. With the nation falling apart, a Croat man who fled during Communist times returns from Germany to help fund Croatian nationalists, along with his beautiful new wife, kicking his first wife and 20-year old son out of the house where they have lived for twenty years. This movie is made by the director of Bosnia's Oscar-winning "No Man's Land", and I'm not sure why it didn't get much traction at Oscar season. (Available on Netflix streaming) Grade: B

18. AFGHANISTAN,'s "Black Tulip"- If there was an award for the best back story, Afghanistan would surely have won the Oscar. The film is about an upper-class Afghan family trying to run a restaurant/cafe in Kabul featuring poetry and music that was banned under the Taliban. The movie makes Afghanistan look like a beautiful, sad and fascinating place...The film is a labor of love by multi-hypenate Sonia Nassery Cole, an Afghan-American woman who stars, directs and co-produces the film. And she does it really well. (Available on Video On Demand as of 10/25/2012) Grade: B

19. ALGERIA, “Hors-la-Loi”- Algeria’s Hors-la-Loi starts with a bang, with a riveting portrayal at the little-known Setif Massacre, in which French troops killed thousands of local Algerians. The film shows the different paths taken by three Algerian brothers living in France, during the decades-long run-up to Algerian independence in 1962. The film is well-made, and certainly important and educational, but it slows down as it goes along and is ultimately way too long for its own good. (Available on Netflix) Grade: B

20. SOUTH KOREA, “A Barefoot Dream”- Like Algeria’s film, this is a difficult one to grade...Based on a true story, “A Barefoot Dream” is a comedy-drama about a self-absorbed Korean entrepreneur who moves to newly independent Timor-Leste to make a quick buck, and ends up trying to sell sneakers to the capital’s barefoot teens. It’s not necessarily a good film, and it starts off downright cheesy. However, Korean directors are masters of emotional manipulation, pressing all the right buttons as if to scream at the audience “LIKE ME!” By the end, you’re supporting the ragtag East Timorese team just like you are supposed to...(Available on Yesasia) Grade: B.

21. VENEZUELA, “Hermano”- A woman and her two teenage sons live in the slums of Caracas. Both sons are soccer stars in the neighborhood- the elder one is an enforcer with a local gang, while the younger one is much more innocent. Life changes forever for the brothers with the occurrence of a brutal accidental murder in the neighborhood. This film challenges your views on personal ambition, brotherhood and revenge and is another great example of a film that proves you don’t need a big budget to make a good movie. I was slightly less moved than my friends who saw this film with me, but it was still very good. B.

22. GERMANY, “When We Leave”- A German-Turkish woman raised in Germany flees an abusive relationship in Turkey with her young son in tow. She returns to her family in Germany, determined to start anew. Her loving family’s welcome turns to scorn when they realize her “visit” is actually a permanent return home and that she plans to disgrace the family by divorcing. A very topical film to be sure. Well-done but flawed with a moving ending. (Available on Netflix) Grade: B

23. AUSTRIA, "La Pivellina"- This is a quirky Italian-language drama from Austria (which wouldn't have been eligible under the old rules) about a poor family of "circus folk" who discover an abandoned baby girl in a park. The girl is accompanied by a note from the mother promising to return shortly. The 50-something matriarch begins becoming increasing attached as days and weeks pass. "La Pivellina" is not the sort of movie I generally like, but this minimalist film was engrossing and memorable. It's even more interesting when you realize the actors are a real family essentially playing themselves (Available on Netflix) Grade: B

24. SOUTH AFRICA- "Life, Above All"- Strongly reminiscent of South Africa's previous Oscar nominee "Yesterday", this film is probably the first internationally seen film in the Sepedi language. Beautifully shot and well-acted by a mostly female, largely child cast, the film focuses on a 13-year old girl named Chandra who is forced to face a lifetime of adversity in a few months of her life. Her baby sister has died, her stepfather is a drunken lout, her mother is sick (probably with AIDS) and her best friend has turned to prostitution to survive. Tackling so many serious issues, this is total Oscar bait. Everything is very well done, but I simply found the film a bit obvious, and not as good as the films higher up on the list. B. (Available on Netflix)

25. SWEDEN, “Simple Simon”- I really can’t understand how this entertaining trifle made it to the Oscar shortlist over “Contracorriente” and “Street Days”. This comedy is the story of Simon, an 18-year old with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mental condition that makes him obsess about times, shapes and colors, and show little regard for the feelings of other people. When Simon learns that his special-needs have caused his older brother to breakup with his girlfriend, he sets out to find him a new one. It’s a fun film with a refreshing visual flair (it tries to make us see the world the way Simon does) and the ending is well-done, but it’s still a standard comedy film that doesn’t have to gravitas to be here. Although she is painted as a villain, I’m afraid I was most sympathetic to the girlfriend driven away by Simon’s maddening antics...(Available on Daaveedee with English subtitles) Grade: B

26. NICARAGUA, “La Yuma”- A teenage girl from an abusive home is trying to train as a female boxer to rise above her surroundings. This is the first film to be made in Nicaragua in twenty years. It’s not up to the technical standards of the Oscar category, but it’s well-made and engaging throughout. The director and lead actress are clearly talented, and her troubled romantic relationship with a local college student is handled very realistically. (Available on Youtube with English subtitles) Grade: B.

27. SLOVAKIA, “The Border”- A fascinating documentary about an ethnic Hungarian village that was divided overnight by Soviet authorities into a border village with Soviet and Czechoslovak halves, dividing families, farms, properties and couples. After the fall of Communism, many thought their separation would be ended forever, but a new border between Slovakia (i.e. the European Union) and Ukraine keeps things complicated. The film misses some major opportunities, but the subject matter is so interesting that doesn’t matter. Grade: B.

“The Light Thief”- Another entertaining but unspectacular film, “The Light Thief” is fascinating most of all for its window on culture in rural Kyrgyzstan. “Mr. Light” connects peasants to the state electricity grid for free and eventually comes into conflict with local politicians. My friend and I argued about the ending and what happened to Mr. Light. Grade: B-

29. ITALY, “The First Beautiful Thing”- This was one of the favorites, and everyone was shocked when it wasn’t nominated. Actually, I think it’s a pretty average Italian comedy-drama about the relationship between a beautiful, free-spirited woman and her son, spanning several decades. Grade: B-

30. IRAQ, “Son of Babylon”- A silent Kurdish granny and her grandson search post-war Iraq for the woman’s son, who was imprisoned under Saddam. It’s hard to say anything bad about this film, which was made under such difficult conditions. It’s a good film, if a bit slow. Grade: B-

31. BELGIUM, “Illegal”- A Russian woman living illegally with her son in Belgium is caught by local authorities and taken to an immigration detention center, while her young son escapes. I disagreed strongly with the politics of the film, as we are supposed to sympathize with the lead character as she refuses to cooperate with the Belgian authorities. Having worked in immigration for three years, I had little sympathy for her as she provided false names, false nationalities and generally refused to try to work within the system to get asylum (which does not seem to be very hard in Western Europe...) Well-acted but preachy...I didn’t like it. (Available on Netflix) Grade: C+

32. CHINA, “Aftershock”- Oh, it all started so well......This big-budget Chinese film begins with a family experiencing the Great Tangshan Earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands, in frightening, gory, tragic detail (the CGI are a bit obvious, but okay). Unfortunately, once the earthquake is over, the film turns into a soap opera with dedicated Communist parents adopting orphans, and bizarre coincidences reuniting families. Maybe my expectations were too high, but the “drama” doesn’t match up to director Feng Xiaogang’s “action”. (Available on Netflix) Grade: C+

33. GREENLAND, “Nuummioq”- Like Kyrgyzstan’s “Light Thief”, the main attraction of this film is to see the landscapes of a country rarely seen on film. A “Nuummioq” (a resident of the Greenlandic capital, Nuuk) likes to drink and hang out with his stepbrother, but his life changes when he finds out he has cancer. An interesting look at what it’s like to live in Greenland, but out of its league here. Grade: C+

34. FRANCE, “Of Gods and Men”- Well-made, well-acted true story about a monastery of French Catholic monks living in Algeria during the 1980s during a period of brutal Islamic violence. It’s nice that the heroic story of these men who lived in harmony with the local community has been memorialized on film, but it’s not a particularly engaging or interesting film and I'm very sorry but frankly I was bored. (Available on Netflix) Grade: C

35. SLOVENIA, "9:06"- This is virtually a short film (71 minutes) about a police detective in Ljubljana investigating what appears to be a suicide. While investigating the man's life, he becomes obsessed with the victim and, for unknown reasons, begins to take on characteristics of the victim. Some good ideas here, but they're not fully fleshed out. (Available on DVD in Slovenia with English subtitles) Grade: C

36. ARGENTINA, “Carancho”- Ricardo Darin stars as an ambulance-chasing lawyer. Lots of juicy endings this year, but otherwise a mostly forgettable thriller. The Argentines can do better. (Available on Netflix) Grade: C

37. RUSSIA, “The Edge”- A technically superior film about life in a Siberian work camp, filled with macho men, racing steam engines and views of the barren steppes of Siberia in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly engaging or interesting. Grade: C

38. COLOMBIA, “Crab Trap”- A white Colombian wanders into an Afro-Colombian village in search of something or someone. He meets a little girl and takes a room in beachfront lodge....It’s slow but never boring, and I suppose it’s interesting if you think of it as a cultural travelogue, but not much happens. Grade: C

39. BANGLADESH, “Third Person Singular Number”- An educated middle-class Bangladeshi woman from a troubled family (jailed husband, estranged mother) finds it more difficult to find an apartment than a job (landlords think any woman who lives alone must be a prostitute). She ends up in a flirtatious relationship with a successful recording artist, presenting her with a number of moral dilemmas. A flawed film to be sure, and definitely out of its league at the Oscars, but interesting nonetheless. (Available on DVD in Bangladesh with English subtitles) Grade: C

40. LATVIA, "Hong Kong Confidential"- Also known as "Amaya", this is an odd little film set in Hong Kong with mostly Cantonese and English dialogue (with a bit of Japanese thrown in). The director and lead actor are Latvians, but there's no mention of the country or its language in the film (when asked where he is from, the lead says he is from a European country "that nobody has ever heard of"). The other leads are a middle-aged binational couple (Japanese wife and Hong Kong husband) who speak in Cantonese, and a Cantonese-speaking massage parlor employee. It's an average film with a series of mostly forgettable interlocking stories and an ending that didn't make sense to me. (Available on DVD in Latvia with English subtitles) Grade: C-

“Dogtooth”- I love black comedies. I love surreal humor. I love how Takashi Miike can make extreme violence funny. I did not love “Dogtooth”. The film is certainly original, but it takes a fascinating idea (an insane husband and wife raise their three children with no contact with the outside world) and almost makes it boring. Not sure how this made the Top Five....(Available on Netflix)
Grade: C- (and only because the screenplay is an original one)

42. PHILIPPINES, “Noy”- Okay, so maybe this one isn’t a bad film, but it is a forgettable one. “Noy” is a drama about a talented videographer with no formal qualifications lying his way into a job as a documentarian for Filipino TV. He has a rough family life including a handicapped brother who earns money by helping a drug gang and a mother who the family tries to force into a relationship with a gross older American man. The Philippines doesn’t come across looking too good in this movie and Noy is not as sympathetic as the filmmakers want him to be. That’s about all I can remember. (Available in the Philippines with English subtitles) Grade: C-

43. ROMANIA, “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle”- I’m not partial to the Romanian New Wave, and I found this story of a young man about to released from a juvenile detention facility to be quite boring. It’s a lot better than the mind-numbing “Police Adjective” Romania sent last year, and it does get better as the story builds to its climax, but I was generally bored. (Available on Netflix) Grade. C-

44. FINLAND, “Steam of Life”- I feel bad putting this film so low since it’s a well-made documentary, but not one that managed to capture my interest. A big hit in its native Finland, it’s the story of famously reserved Finnish men baring their life’s traumas in the comfort of the country’s renowned saunas. A lot of sad stories which hopefully provided catharsis to all involved, but I'm afraid I was bored. Grade: C-

45. PORTUGAL, “To Die Like A Man”- It sounds difficult to make a campy movie about an aging drag queen dull but that’s exactly what the Portuguese have done with this overlong melodrama about the misadventures of a transgender cabaret singer, and her (his?) violent 21-year old son from an earlier liaison. Starts off interesting, but could have used some judicious editing (i.e. most scenes with her dog) since it goes on much MUCH too long. (Available on Netflix Streaming) Grade: D+

46. TURKEY "Honey"- This winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin is quite a pretty film if you're interesting in watching a travelogue of rural Turkey. However, this virtually plotless, scriptless film about a little boy whose father disappears (well, not see what happens to him in the first scene) is mind-numbingly slow and not worth watching. (Available on Netflix) Grade: D+

47. POLAND, “All That I Love”- The most memorable thing about this forgettable Cold War drama set in 1980s Communist Poland is that I barely remember seeing it. It’s a trifling, uninteresting coming-of-age tale about a teenager with a punk band. Neighboring Hungary took a similar plot (substituting punk for rock-n-roll) with “Made in Hungaria” which was ten times better. Grade: D

48. BULGARIA, “Eastern Plays”- A drab, depressing drama about the intersecting lives of a recovering Bulgarian drug addict, his neo-Nazi brother, and a Turkish family visiting Bulgaria. Lots of important issues here, but it’s not done in an interesting way. I’m not sure how this film was able to win the Tokyo Film Festival in 2009. Grade: D

49. ESTONIA, “The Temptation of St. Tony”- I was really excited to see this film which is billed as the story of a man who suddenly decides to abandon all morals. Unfortunately, it's an experimental and virtually plotless mess that manages to be shocking and boring at the same time. Looks like a student film project gone awry. (Available on Netflix) Grade: D-

50. THAILAND, “Uncle Boonmee”- Creative? Possibly. Good? No. I lived in Thailand for years and I am a great lover of Thai cinema but I’m embarrassed that their first Cannes win is for this pretentious, nonsensical film. The director seems to think that if he throws enough crazy ideas on the screen that it will be art. (Available on Netflix) Grade: D-

I haven't got a chance to see the other 16 films from Azerbaijan, Brazil, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Macedonia, Mexico, Norway, Puerto Rico, Serbia, Switzerland and Uruguay, but will get around to seeing "Biutiful" soon, and have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to obtain a copy of Puerto Rico's "Miente".

NEXT: 2012 Oscars- The Films of Western Europe

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Here's the last batch....Now let's see which countries enter the race....

78. POLAND made things easy by choosing their Oscar nominee in June- namely, Agnieszka Holland’s “In Darkness”. Holland was at the center of one of this category’s biggest controversies, when Germany declined to send a film to the competition in 1991 even though Holland’s “Europa, Europa” was winning awards internationally. Germany said it wasn’t a German-majority film (Holland is Polish) although she had represented West Germany and been Oscar nominated in 1985! In all honesty, I probably would have guessed wrong with “Battle of Warsaw, 1920”, a war drama about the Russia-Poland conflict or “Joanna”, a baity film about a Polish woman who saves a Jewish girl during WWII. The winner of the Polish Eagles (the local Oscars) was “Essential Killing”, but this film starring Vincent Gallo was probably ineligible due to too much English.

79. PORTUGAL has arguably the world’s worst record. They are tied with Egypt for the most Oscar entries with no nominations but, unlike Egypt, I don’t think they’ve ever even come close. This year’s most acclaimed film is clearly sumptuous costume drama “Mysteries of Lisbon”, by Chilean director Raul Ruiz that has gotten surprisingly good reviews despite its four-and-a-half-hour running time. It’s the adaptation of a popular Portuguese novel about a young man raised in an orphanage searching for the identity of his parents, one of whom is a countess. Among its awards was a sweep at the 2011 Portuguese Golden Globes. Runner-up: 102-year old Manoel deOliveira’s latest film “The Strange Case of Angelica” is about a funereal photographer who takes mystical journeys with a young dead girl. It premiered at Cannes 2010, but took a year to be released in Portugal. It’s unlikely they’d choose anything other than these two films….Highly unlikely: “Civil War”, about a restless mother and son in 1982 Portugal.

80. PUERTO RICO has very little going on this year. If they enter the competition, it may be with “America”, about a woman who flees her beautiful Caribbean island because of an abusive husband, and seeks friendship and solace as a nanny among the Hispanic immigrant community in the Bronx.

81. ROMANIA, despite its much-publicized New Wave, is still trying for its first nomination. I personally thought “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” was a good movie, but I thought “If I Want to Whistle” was boring and “Police, Adjective” was just plain awful. Romanian movies tend to circulate at Film Festivals for a year or more before they premiere in Romania. So, I don’t think “Loverboy” (Cannes 2011) will be eligible. Therefore, I’m predicting “Medal of Honor”, a drama about an old man who wins a medal for something he can’t remember doing. It premiered in 2009, winning the Thessaloniki FIPRESCI award and lost to “If I want to Whistle” at this year’s Romanian Oscars (the Gopos). Also nominated were “Morgen”, a comedy-drama about rural Romanians hiding a Muslim illegal immigrant, and three-hour documentary “Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaucescu”. Also possible: eccentric romantic comedy “Hello, How Are You?” or “Portrait of the Fighter as a Young Man”, a lengthy historical drama about Romania’s anti-Communist resistance. I predict “Medal of Honor”, followed by “Aurora” and “Morgen”. If “Loverboy” does premiere, the drama about young pimps will be a strong challenger to “Medal” for the nomination.

82. RUSSIA probably has the easiest choice of any of the major countries....It’s almost certain to be “Elena”, an engrossing dark, family drama that has won awards (including Cannes), gotten universally positive reviews in Russia and abroad, and is by a director that has already found favor with the Russian Academy- Andrei Zvyagintsev, who was selected in 2003 for “The Return”. I did not enjoy “The Return”. The film is scheduled to premiere in Russian cinemas two days before the deadline, a possible indication that the producers have their eye on an Oscar. I say it’s a pretty easy choice. It’s main competition is “Silent Souls” (FIPRESCI Prize at Venice 2010; Best Pic Nom at the Nika Awards), a spiritual drama with deep roots in Russian culture, about a man on a journey to cremate his wife. I’m pretty sure “Elena” will be the Russian nominee, but other possibilities include big-budget war drama “Brest Fortress” (also see BELARUS) and “A Stoker”, a grim drama about a Russian man living in exile in the frigid ethnic Yakut republic of Sakha during the 1990s. Alexander Sokurov’s German-language retelling of the story of “Faust” will premiere in Venice and might be included in the shortlist if it’s any good, and if it gets released in time, as might “Heart’s Boomerang”, about a young man who learns he’s dying, or “Inadequate People”, a well-reviewed quirky comedy (yes, Russian makes comedies! They selected one in 2008!) about a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Some people have mentioned “The Hunter”, a two-hour film about pig farming that played at Cannes, but I don’t see it having any chance whatsoever.

83. SERBIA has quite a few well-received films this year, and I’m not at all sure which one they’ll pick. I think the frontrunners are three: “The Enemy”, an odd supernatural war drama about the devil himself, who may or may not be personally playing a role in newly peaceful Bosnia in 1995, “Montevideo, God Bless You!”, a warm, happy sports comedy about Yugoslavia’s team in the first World Cup, in 1930; and “Skinning”, a youth drama about a smart young teen who falls under the influence of a neo-Nazi group. Dark horses include two dramas coincidentally set in the same depressed mining town of Bor: “White White World”, a sort of Balkan musical starring a number of local characters, and “Tilva Ros”, which has appeared at more festivals than any Serbian film, but whose youthful nonprofessional cast look straight out of “jackass”, and “How I Was Stolen by the Germans”, a violent period black comedy. Unlikely: youthful omnibus film “October” looks great, and family drama “Together” sounds nice enough, but neither has made much of a blip internationally. Lazar Ristovski has starred in EIGHT Serbian submissions, but his latest, “White Lions” looks too silly to make a mark. My prediction: “Skinning”, followed by “Enemy”, “Montevideo” and “White White World”.

84. SINGAPORE submitted three films between 2005 and 2008 and two of those were by Eric Khoo, so it would seem like a safe bet to predict Khoo’s latest arty film, “Tatsumi”. Like Khoo’s previous two submissions, “Tatsumi” also played at Cannes. It’s a rather strange animated film about the life of famed Japanese comic book artists Tatsumi Yoshihiro, interspersing “clips” of his life with animated version of some of his most disturbing stories. The film is a strange one and it’s in Japanese so I’m not sure if the crew is Singaporean enough to qualify, but they’ll probably send it anyway. However, I’m hoping they send “It’s a Great, Great World”, a popular big-scale comedy set in five different decades, and directed by Kelvin Tong. “Where the Road Meets the Sun” , starring Ugly Betty’s Eric Mabius, appears to contain too much English to contend.

85. SLOVAKIA has been very proud of its filmmaking record this year, with a strong showing at Berlin, Karlovy Vary and possibly others later this year. Their obvious choice is “Gypsy” (Cigan), a drama about a Roma boy running afoul of the rules of his community, by director Martin Sulik. Independent Slovakia submitted his film, “Everything I Like”, in 1993 and they proceeded to send all five of Sulik’s fiction features until 2005. He has been making documentaries for the past six years, and “Gypsy” is his first fiction movie in 2011. Any other year, it would be a shoo-in, but this year it faces a lot of competition from “The House”, which won good reviews in Berlin, a bleak drama about a girl battling against the domineering father who is trying to build her a house to keep her in the community, and “Apricot Island”, about inter-ethnic romance in Southern Slovakia (Slovak + Hungarian). Slovakia also likes to choose documentaries, so it’s possible they could choose “Matchmaking Mayor” (by a Czech director) about a Slovak mayor trying to match up her single residents, or “Nick’s Family”, about Jewish children saved in World War II (also the subject of their 1999 submission). There’s too much competition to consider “Visible World” (Karlovy Vary) about a reclusive middle-aged man, “Cherry Boy”, about an actor recovering from a heart attack or “Love”, about a young couple planning a bank heist. All three top films are strong possibilities. I say they stick with Sulik and his “Gypsy” over his two younger rivals.

86. SLOVENIA made it ten years in a row in the Oscar race last year and although they’ve never gotten an Oscar nod, film production is up. It looks like they will have seven or eight eligible features this year, only half of which have been premiered outside of Film Markets….The favorite is clearly “Silent Sonata” (although I prefer the Slovene title, Circus Fantasticus), a drama with no dialogue about a circus touring amidst a family recovering from war. It beat out three of the other eligible films for Best Picture at last year’s Slovenian Film Festival, and that film usually reps Slovenia at the Oscars. In second place, is box-office smash “Going Our Way”, a summer camp comedy and the second-biggest box-office hit in Slovenia’s history and which beat “Sonata” for the Audience Award at the Festival. It’s looks formulaic and not very Oscary, but it also looks like a lot of fun. If “Sonata” is too abstract, and “Our Way” is too commercial, they’ll probably send “Good Night Missy”, a drama about a woman dithering between an unfaithful husband and an unfaithful ex. Other possibilities: Already premiered are father-son drama “Dad” and “Piran-Pirano”, about the history of a multi-ethnic border town. Yet to be released are: three friends on a road trip in “The Trip”, and two new films by twice-selected directors, abstract drama “Archo” and “Goodbye Lenin” remake (?) “State of Shock”

87. SOUTH AFRICA has a great record at the Oscars, as they’ve been shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film three times since 2004 (even considering they skipped two years)and received a Best Picture nomination for District 9. Their past five submissions have focused on South Africa’s African communities, including Sothos (Life Above All), Zulu (Yesterday), but there’s a dearth of films in indigenous African languages this year. They’ve made up for that with a revival of Afrikaans-language films from South Africa’s white communities. The chief contenders this year are a pair of acclaimed Afrikaans family dramas, namely the gay-themed “Skoonheid” (Beauty) which played at Cannes, and “Roepman”, which is told from the perspective of a 10-year old boy, as well as multi-ethnic, multi-lingual action-comedy “Paradise Stop” which reunites the director and stars of 2009’s delightfully fun “White Wedding”. In fourth place, political thriller “State of Violence” (in Zulu and English). Unlikely dark horses include “Liefling”, a popular teen musical in Afrikaans, “A Small Town Called Descent”, a political thriller and “My Hunter’s Heart”, an acclaimed documentary in San. “Roepman” has by far the best reviews. “Skoonheid” has the highest profile due to its spot in the Cannes line-up. “Paradise Stop” is the most accessible to South African audiences as a whole….but may contain too much English to qualify. My prediction: “Skoonheid”, but I’m not confident.

88. SPAIN traditionally releases a three-film shortlist, and they like to choose their favorite film, i.e. not necessarily the one that has the best chance of being nominated. This year, I predict the finalists will be: “Black Bread” (Winner of Best Picture at the 2011 Goya Awards), “Don’t Be Afraid” (directed by Oscar nominee Montxo Armendariz, “Secrets of the Heart”) and the 800-pound gorilla, “The Skin I Live In” (directed by Pedro Almodovar and starring Antonio Banderas). Now, Almodovar has represented Spain five times, racking up one win, one nomination and one shortlist spot, but he was famously snubbed for “Talk to Her” (a dumb move by Spain), “Bad Education” (my favorite Almodovar, but a wise move by the Spanish Academy which selected Oscar winner “The Sea Inside” instead) and “Broken Embraces” (which didn’t even get shortlisted!), and everyone is wondering how creepy plastic surgery thriller “The Skin I Live In” will do. I think it will be shortlisted and will lose to “Black Bread”, a violent look at post Civil War Catalonia, and the first Catalan-language film to win the Goyas. But it will be really close….”Don’t Be Afraid” is the story a child abuse survivor, which I think will come third. Alternates for the Spanish shortlist: “No Peace for the Wicked” will premiere at San Sebastian and “The Waves”, the story of an aging man, won in Moscow has the best chance of breaking through, while bizarre killer clown drama “The Last Circus” and gentle dramedy “Cousinhood” could also come into play. Less likely: Basque family rival drama “The Stone”, and “Madrid 1987”. As for “La Voz Dormiga”, it’s not scheduled to premiere in time.

89. SRI LANKA has randomly sent two films in the past eight years. This year’s most likely submission is “Flying Fish”, a grim set against the background of theTamil conflict like their last film from 2009. In second place: “Sinhawalokana”, a musical about cricket, which is a more commercial film and one that looks an awful lot like India’s Oscar-nominated “Lagaan”. They likely won’t send a film, but they also have “Mahindagamanaya”, a colorful story about the arrival of Buddhism on the island, or “Karma”, an arty drama about a young man who has an affair with a cancer patient.

90. SWEDEN, as usual, has quite a few films to choose from this year. Interestingly enough, the egalitarian Swedes are now the only major European country never to choose a film directed by a woman (the Spaniards were the other until last year). I’ve narrowed down the field to a likely six: “Behind Blue Skies” is a comic drama starring Bill Skarsgard (of last year’s shortlisted “Simple Simon”), about a young man from a broken home who gets a job on a resort island; “Between Two Fires” is a critically acclaimed drama about romance in an asylum processing center, which may be handicapped by including two much English between the international cast to qualify, “Beyond” is a traditional Swedish family drama with a feminist slant, which got a Best Pic nom and a Best Director win at last year’s Swedish Oscars, “Happy End” is a yet-to-be-released “fairy tale for adults” about the intersecting lives of five people, “Play”, a controversial story about a group of bold, black immigrant children who take advantage of their richer ethnic Swedish classmates, and “Sound of Noise” is a bizarre anarchic musical. Two of these are directed by women (“Beyond” and “Between Two Fires”) as are three of the four dark horses, “Pure”, about a female high-school dropout, “She-Monkeys” (Berlin), a disturbing low-budget drama about teenage girls and “With Every Heartbeat”, about the strange, emotional relationship between two adult women who are about to become stepsisters. Rounding out the Top Ten films of the year is “Beyond the Border”, a wintry action-drama set during WWII on the Sweden-Norway border. Will this be the year of the woman? It might be for actress Pernilla August and “Beyond”, but unfortunately I’m ranking her third, with quirky “Sound of Noise” representing Sweden, “Happy End” in second, “Play” in fourth and “Behind Blue Skies” in fifth.

91. SWITZERLAND, as always, has some quirky films in the running. This year, all the contenders seem to be from the German-speaking regions, as opposed to the French ones that have gotten to represent Switzerland two years in a row. Sure to make their shortlist are a trio of well-reviewed films that are genuinely Swiss-majority productions: “Hell” (in German) is a sci-fi drama executive produced by Roland Emmerlich (“Independence Day”) about a family searching for water in an era when the sun in drying out; “Manipulation” (in German) is a Cold War conspiracy thriller starring Klaus Maria Brandauer (“Out of Africa”) set in 1956 about the investigation into a star reporter’s suicide; and “Sennentuntschi” (in Swiss German) is a fairy tale-horror film, about a villager who encounters a woman who may or may not be real. Rounding out the Top Five are two youth dramas, both in Swiss German: “Silver Forest”, a coming-of-age drama about a group of boys who are tempted by a far-right group, and “Fliegende Fische”, about a girl’s relationship with her mother. Possible for the shortlist, but less likely for the nomination: romantic comedy “Overbooked”, surreal comedy “The Sandman”, rural drama “Songs of Love and Hate”, cancer drama “Ward Pirates” and “Murder Behind the Curtain”, a mystery-comedy which was the final film by 91-year old Swiss grand dame Stephanie Glaser. My prediction: “Hell” tops “Manipulation”, although I’m rooting for a shock win for the creepy straw doll in “Sennentuntschi”. UPDATE (9/6/2011): "Hell" is not eligible as it will premiere two weeks after the deadline, so I'm changing my prediction to "Manipulation". Switzerland announced sixteen eligible films, and I feel as if "Colors in the Dark", starring Bruno Ganz and "Mangrove", about a Swiss woman returning to the scene of a childhood tragedy in Mexico, should also be considered leading contenders.

92. TAIWAN has a three-way race, and it’s not a particularly close one. The favorite is the much-anticipated “Seediq Bale”, an expensive (10 million US dollars!) look at a 1930 uprising by an aboriginal tribe against Japanese rule, by the director of their major hit, “Cape No. 7”. It will be released in two parts in September 2010. If it’s any good, it will definitely be the representative of Taiwan. If it’s not any good, they’ll probably choose one of their 2010 Golden Horse winners. Oddly enough, “When Love Comes” won Best Picture over “The Fourth Portrait”, whereas “Portrait” beat “Love” for Best Taiwanese Film. “When Love Comes” swept the awards overall and this family drama about a man with two wives will probably finish ahead of “Portrait”, about a ten-year old adjusting to a new family after the death of his father.

93. TAJIKISTAN has sent two films since gaining independence in 1991, both of which were very good. Tajikistan is the poorest republic to emerge from the former USSR, and I don’t think they have any feature films this year. “Waiting for the Sea”, by Bakhtiyar Khudojnazarov, should be their next release.

94. TANZANIA sent a Swahili-language film once in 2001. I’m fairly certain they won’t send anything, but they could send “Ray of Hope”, a drama about an HIV-positive woman fighting for her rights. It premiere at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and is directed by female Indian expat director Sajni Srivastava.

95. THAILAND hasn’t had too many quality films this year, which means that it’s highly likely they’ll send “King Naresuan III: Naval Battle” a 16th century epic with beautiful costumes, thrilling battle scenes and royal credentials from its director, Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol whose films have been selected four times. King Naresuan II was selected in 2007. They may also “King Naresuan 4”, which is scheduled to be released in August, but which I think will be postponed. There are few non-Naresuan films around this year that aren’t lightweight romantic dramas, comic ghost movies or lowbrow comedies. Among the other unlikely contenders would be “Laddaland”, a family-themed horror film, explicit gay-interest drama “Insects in the Backyard”, which hasn’t been able to pass the censors yet, muay thai documentary “Lumphini”, “Mindfulness and Murder”, a Buddhist murder mystery which would have a better chance if weren’t directed by a foreigner, action film “Red Eagle” by Wisit Sasanatieng (“Citizen Dog”) which has starpower but only middling reviews. I think “Naresuan III” is pretty much a lock. Runner-ups are “Naresuan IV” and “Headshot”, which both of which are unlikely to be released in time.

96. TUNISIA last sent a film in 2002. They’ve been pretty busy this year starting off the Arab Spring so they haven’t had much time to make movies…..I don’t know of any new fiction Tunisian features this year- “Les Palmieres Blesses” (a woman finds a job as a secretary) and “Fin Decembre” (a number of intersecting stories, including a man who returns from abroad to look for a wife) have repped Tunisia at Film Festivals this year but premiered too early. There’s a chance they may send “No More Fear” (Cannes), a documentary about the recent events of the Arab Spring.

97. TURKEY has never received an Oscar nomination, although they were shortlisted once for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Three Monkeys”. I do not like Nuri Bilge Ceylan. “Three Monkeys” was adequate, “Distant” was awful, and I have little desire to see the longer (2 ½ hour), more abstract “Once Upon A Time in Anatolia”, about a group of men searching for the body of a murder victim. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes, but “Climates” won the FIPRESCI Prize and they didn’t choose that either. Even though it’s the clear favorite, I think “Once Upon A Time” will finish in second place in the Turkish race behind Turkish Cypriot director Dervis Zaim’s “Shadows and Faces”, about Greek-Turkish tensions in 1963 Cyprus. It won major awards at two of Turkey’s three major film festivals, including Best Picture in Ankara. The two strong dark horses are “Press”, a low-budget drama about the travails of Turkish journalists (which won major prizes at all three big Turkish festivals) and “Hunting Season” a solid murder mystery by renowned Yavuz Turgul, who has repped Turkey twice, but it’s not considered to be his best work. Less likely but possible: “Five Minarets in New York” is an expensive box-office hit action film that co-stars Western actors Danny Glover and Gina Gershon, about Turkish police searching for a smuggler in New York, and “Majority”, about a slacker living with his domineering father, which won Best Picture at the Golden Oranges. One of those should rep Turkey. “Hayde Bre” won Best Pic in Shanghai, “Hair” won Best Pic in Istanbul and “Our Grand Despair” competed in Berlin, but I just don’t think they’ll be competitive. I pick dark horse “Shadows and Faces” but that may be wishful thinking that Ceylan doesn’t get it.

98. UKRAINE has taken the past two years off, but they will likely return with depressing, angst-ridden road movie “My Joy”, about a truck driver and a young prostitute, the most prominent Ukrainian film on the FF circuit in years. The film premiered in the main competition of Cannes in 2010 more than a year ago, but it had its local bow in Ukraine within the Oscar deadline, later that year. It also won the Grand Prix (2nd place) at the Kyiv Film Festival. Nevertheless, it sounds so depressing!

99. UNITED KINGDOM submits intermittently due to a lack of foreign-language films, and for the third year in a row, I am fairly certain they’ll send “Patagonia”, a long-delayed film which finally had its confirmed domestic premiere in April. It’s a well-received road movie with some well-known stars (Matthew Rhys of Brothers and Sisters) in Welsh and Spanish about Welsh settlers in Argentina. Unlikely but possible: “Pusher”, a Hindi-language crime drama set in England, and based on the famous Danish film of the same time.

100. URUGUAY likes the choose the underdog, sometimes for good reasons (“Bad Day for Fishing” beat “Gigante”) and sometimes for bad (“La Vida Util” beat “Leo’s Room”). This tiny country has been active in filmmaking for the last few years, leading to four main contenders- “Beyond the Road”, by a Brazilian director, is about two strangers taking a road trip through Uruguay; “Norberto’s Deadline”, about a man who loses his job, and starts taking acting lessons, “Silent House” is a creepy, horror movie with mixed reviews shot in one take; and “The Wedding” is about a 60-year old trans man who is finally able to become a woman. “Porfirio” played at Cannes. Multi-national “Porfirio” sounds too Colombian, and “Southern Cross” probably won’t premiere in time. Statistics make it look like they’ll choose “Norberto” since it stars Daniel Hendler (co-star of three Oscar submissions- two Argentine, one Uruguayan) and is exactly the sort of droll deadpan comedy the Uruguayans choose year after year. Runner-up: underdog “Silent House”

101. VENEZUELA will likely be deciding between two films with the same theme- namely, the country’s tragic 1999 floods that killed roughly 20,000 people on the Caribbean coast. “The Kid Who Lies” is one of only a handful of Venezuelan films that have competed at a Class-A Festival (Berlin’s “Generation” sidebar), and bills itself as the first Venezuelan film to deal with the tragedy. The titular character tells a different fib every time he’s asked where the rest of his family is, as the audience slow. It was followed a few months later by “The Rumble of the Stones”, about a woman trying to raise her two sons in a Caracas slum ten years after losing her home and her daughter in the floods. The National Film Festival saw the two films compete against each other, with “Rumble” prevailing, winning Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and three other awards. The other big winner was not “The Kid” at all (which won a single award for “Best Sound”), but “Reveron”, a well-reviewed box-office failure which is a period autobiography of famed Venezuelan painter, Armando Reveron, which won Best Director, Best Actor, the Audience Award and four other awards. If they want to go for a more political film, they could choose “Days of Power” by 80-year old Roman Chalbaud, who directed Venezuela’s first-ever Oscar contender in 1978…but I doubt it. It will be close, but I predict “Rumble” over “The Kid” by a nose.

102. VIETNAM’s VCA, announced in 2008 and 2010 that they wouldn’t participate this year because they say that their films are either not subtitled, not released in commercial cinemas or not good. I hope they change their mind because some of their films look fantastic this year. Take a look at the gorgeous trailer for Long Thanh Cam Gia Ca (, a 19th century period drama which won Best Picture at this year’s Silver Kite Awards (the Vietnamese Oscars) but which doesn’t have subtitles and hasn’t screened commercially. Also impressive is 10th century battle drama Thang Long Aspirations which looks worthy of something to come out of China. “Floating Lives”, about a dysfunctional family in rural Vietnam has played internationally….So, it’s quite sad that the Vietnamese don’t see the value in joining this competition. I’ll predict the Best Picture winner, which loosely translated as “Songstress in the Citadel”.

Attention-seeking QATAR premiered its first-ever feature film “Clockwise” in October of last year, which (rather surprisingly) is a supernatural drama based on the pre-Islamic mythology of djinns. RWANDA has “Grey Matter” (Tribeca 2011) a surreal film about a Rwandan film student trying to make a film in Kigali after losing his source of funding….. SAMOA's first-ever feature film, “The Orator”, has been hailed by its government as an excellent way to promote tourism and show the Samoan way of life to the world. It’s scheduled to premiere this summer and could be sent just as neighboring Fiji’s first film was in 2005...SAUDI ARABIA has no cinemas to meet the screening requirement, but gender-clashing comedy “The Corporation” sounds like a lot of fun. SYRIA is engaged in a battle with its own people right now, so they’re unlikely to enter the Oscar race for the first time in the midst of it. However they’ve had several films on the circuit this year, and “September Rain”, a romantic drama about a widower with six sons. TIMOR-LESTE is in pre-production on its first-ever feature film, “A Guerra Da Beatriz “ but it won’t be released until next year. TOGO is the setting of “Bluebird”, a Belgian-funded and directed film about a group of Togolese children looking for a bluebird. UNITED ARAB EMIRATES is the most likely Gulf state to enter this competition some day, and they have hopes for the upcoming “Sea Shadow”, a coming-of-age drama about two teens from Ras-al-Khaimah, and the first film from the Abu Dhabi production company Imagenation, which could be the first Gulf submission in more than thirty years. UPDATE: The Samoan film will open in October and will be eligible next year, when I expect it will be the first-ever Samoan Oscar submission.