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