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.


NO CHANCE-

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).



UNLIKELY

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.


DARK HORSES

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).


VERY POSSIBLE

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.


FAVORITES

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 clich├ęd 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 Yesasia.com) 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-

MY SHORTLIST-
6. HONG KONG,
“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 Yesasia.com) 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+

GOOD MOVIES!
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 daaveedee.com 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.

AVERAGE FILMS
28. KYRGYZSTAN,
“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-

BAD FILMS
41. GREECE,
“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 really....you 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