Saturday, January 21, 2012


Four of out of nine....This is the worst I've done since I started keeping this blog.....CANADA's "Monsieur Lazhar", IRAN's "A Separation" and POLAND's "In Darkness" were obvious, and should have no trouble making the five-film nomination stage.....I also got ISRAEL's esoteric "Footnote", which most people also predicted....

I'm kicking myself for dropping MOROCCO (the one that seems to have surprised everyone) from my list the day before....I should have known that the Oscar committee can't get enough of producer Rached Bouchareb, and "Omar"'s topical, baity plotline. And I should have also guessed that the elite committee would save GERMANY's "Pina", which I'm pretty sure could not have gotten past the regular committee.

That said, I'm pretty surprised at BELGIUM, DENMARK, and especially TAIWAN, which I thought was an also-ran for sure. DENMARK's lightweight comedy "Superclasico" did have good buzz around it....BELGIUM's crime drama "Bullhead" had great buzz too, and I mistakenly placed it low down my list since it's actually a bad film (I saw it in October). I should have known they don't decide on quality. TAIWAN's four-hour plus violent action opus "Seediq Bale" apparently wowed some voters, although I'm pretty certain that the Taiwanese (with Belgium and Germany) were saved by the big committee.

I guess the Belgians and the Danes can now be forgiven for ignoring their respective Oscar front-runners ("The Kid With a Bike" and "A Family")!

I was quite shocked to see FINLAND ("Le Havre") and FRANCE ("Declaration of War") missing from the list, and to a lesser extent, also MEXICO's "Miss Bala". I think "Le Havre" was a decent film, but I dislike Kaurismaki, so I was sort of happy to see him snubbed.

But it's now a new day....The five nominations will be announced on Tuesday and it'll be a close one....I can see any of these nine films going the distance, but here are my predictions:

1. IRAN- "A Separation"
2. POLAND- "In Darkness"
3. CANADA- "Monsieur Lazhar"

Difficult to see any of these well-reviewed candidates missing....

4. MOROCCO- "Omar Killed Me"
5. ISRAEL- "Footnote"
6. BELGIUM- "Bullhead"

Morocco's French film is easily the most accessible of these three films jockeying for the other two spots.

7. GERMANY- "Pina"
8. DENMARK- "Superclasico"
9. TAIWAN- "Seediq Bale"

Boy this is going to be close! GERMANY's dance documentary is easily the favorite and critical darling, but this visually dazzling film is not what is usually honored here....DENMARK's "Superclasico" is supposed to be charming and funny, but reviews are easily the weakest of the nine films here, and "charming and funny" didn't help "Simple Simon" to make the finals last year (although it worked for BELGIUM's "Everybody Famous!"). TAIWAN is the only film I really think is unlikely....but I could be wrong again!

Two other short notes....For those of you want to see films on the list for yourself:

1. The films from COLOMBIA and URUGUAY are available to watch or rent in the US on Netflix or Amazon, with PERU coming out next month.

2. The films from CHINA, FINLAND, FRANCE, GERMANY, MEXICO and the real entry from ALBANIA (The Forgiveness of Blood) are in US cinemas, or coming soon.

3. You can buy the movies from GERMANY, GREECE, IRAN, IRELAND, KOREA, NETHERLANDS, SPAIN, SWEDEN and the UK with English subtitles (most very expensive!!) on Ebay or similar sites, and also BRAZIL and CUBA without subtitles.

4. The films from INDIA and INDONESIA are on Youtube (probably illegally!) with no English subtitles.

And since there are OTHER categories in the Oscar race, here are my predictions for the major categories, in order of likelihood:

PICTURE: : The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Tree of Life, Harry Potter 8 (ALT: Drive, Moneyball, Bridesmaids, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, My Week with Marilyn)
ACTOR: Clooney, Pitt, Fassbender, DuJardin and Bichir (ALT: Leo diCaprio)
ACTRESS: Streep, Davis, Williams, Swinton and Close (ALT: Rooney Mara)
SUPP. ACTOR: Plummer, Branagh, Brooks, Nolte, Hammer (ALT: Jonah Hill)
SUPP. ACTRESS:: Spencer, Bejo, Woodley, McTeer, Chastain (ALT: Melissa McCarthy)
DIRECTOR:: Hazanavicius, Scorsese, W. Allen, Payne, Fincher (ALT: Nicolas Winding Refn)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Well, the 9-film Foreign Film shortlist will come out today (Tuesday) or tomorrow (Wednesday), so it's time to draft my list of predictions...I'm fairly confident about the first seven films on the list, but the other two will really depend on the Elite Committee....

Will they be forced to use their "three film save" to nominate acclaimed movies like "Le Havre" and "A Separation"? Or will those films find favor with the larger committee, allowing them to go right-field with divisive choices like "Pina" or "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia"?

Will the large committee choose "Oscary" films that have gotten mostly bad reviews, like "Sonny Boy" and "Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel"? We'll find out very soon.

1. IRAN- Nader & Simin: A Separation
2. CANADA- Monsieur Lazhar
3. POLAND- In Darkness
4. FINLAND- Le Havre
5. FRANCE- Declaration of War
6. MEXICO- Miss Bala
7. ISRAEL- Footnote
8. AUSTRIA- Breathing
9. CHINA- Flowers of War

10. NETHERLANDS- Sonny Boy (Large Committee Only)
11. HONG KONG- A Simple Life
12. MOROCCO- Omar Killed Me
13. GERMANY- Pina (Elite Committee Only)
14. ICELAND- Volcano

15. IRELAND- As If I Am Not There
16. SPAIN- Black Bread
17. NORWAY- Happy, Happy
18. RUSSIA- Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel (Large Committe Only)
19. LEBANON- Where Do We Go Now?
20. SWEDEN- Beyond
21. TURKEY- Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (Elite Committee Only)
22. HUNGARY- The Turin Horse (Elite Committee Only)
23. NEW ZEALAND- The Orator
24. DENMARK- Superclasico

25. BULGARIA- Tilt
26. BELGIUM- Bullhead
27. JAPAN- Postcard
28. SLOVAKIA- Gypsy
29. COLOMBIA- Colors of the Mountain
30. ITALY- Terraferma
31. CHILE- Violeta

I don't see anyone else as having a real shot.....

LEAST LIKELY TO GET A NOMINATION- Uruguay's low-budget horror movie "The Silent House" (which isn't a bad movie but is definitely out of its league here...)


Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know...

Monday, January 16, 2012

2011-2012 OSCAR FOREIGN FILMS- The Americas, Africa and Oceania (16 Films)

The official Oscar list should come out tomorrow, so here are the films from Africa, the Americas and the Pacific:

16. PUERTO RICO- "America"

I'm so angry that PUERTO RICO was disqualified...AMPAS decided that Puerto Rico no longer qualifies as a country even though they have entered the Oscar competition since 1986, earning one Oscar nomination. Although there has been no recent change in Puerto Rico's political status and although AMPAS does recognize Greenland (an autonomous region of Denmark), Hong Kong (an autonomous region of China), Palestine (an occupied territory) and Taiwan (an unrecognized republic) as countries (and I agree that they are), AMPAS decided all of a sudden to uninvite Puerto Rico last year. I'm quite angry at this ridiculous decision.

Apparently, the Puerto Ricans were informed about this ridiculous decision last year, but they decided to submit "America" anyway. It's about a woman who flees an abusive relationship to move to New York City and develops friendships with a group of Spanish-speaking nannies from around Latin America. For those of you who try to see all the Oscar submissions each year, please try to see "America", which co-stars Oscar nominee Edward James Olmos. I will!

As a quick PS.....AMPAS promised in their decision that Puerto Rican films would be allowed to compete in the "main categories" as American releases. However, "America" did not appear in the AMPAS list of eligible releases since it did not get a Los Angeles release. Ridiculous.

15. URUGUAY- "La Casa Muda"
14. EGYPT- "Lust"
13. ARGENTINA- "Aballay"
12. SOUTH AFRICA- "Beauty"
11. CUBA- "Habanastation"

Better luck next year for these five countries, and their unusual choices for Oscar. URUGUAY's "Silent House" is probably this year's biggest longshot....Reportedly made for only 6000 US dollars, this film claims to be the first horror film shot in one single shot. The film is about a young woman trapped in a mysterious abandoned house (with a killer? with ghosts?) You can watch it (like I did) on Amazon. A low-budget horror film is not exactly an Oscar draw but with a US remake already released and an impressive recoup on its budget, the film is a great success and an interesting (though very imperfect) watch.

EGYPT's soap opera "Lust", filmed prior to the revolution in Egypt, is said to foreshadow much of the dissatisfaction with the Mubarak era. Though it is acclaimed for a tour-de-force perfomance by lead actress Susan Badr, the film has gotten mixed reviews for its class-driven story of a woman trying to claw her way back from poverty, back into the middle-class from whence she came. Other than "Silent House", it got the lowest rating of these films on IMDB, and a rather mixed reception.

ARGENTINA and SOUTH AFRICA have gotten a much more varied reception. "Aballay" is a brutally violent western about a man who seeks revenge on the man who murdered his family in front of him as a child. That man (Aballay) has since seen the error of his ways and pursued a life of peace and nonviolence. "Beauty" is the first South African film about the country's white community to be selected since 1997 (and ironically the first-ever South African submission by a non-white director!). "Beauty" is about a closeted gay man who lusts after his nephew's friend...Both films have their fans, but also a lot of detractors. Argentina's film especially is said to be all over the place and perhaps a bit over-the-top...Both are too divisive to make the next round.

CUBA's "Habanastation" counts Michael Moore among its fans, and the documentarian has worked to get the film screened in the US. However, this story about two 12-year old boys who go from become enemies to being friends is said to be largely for younger audiences and doesn't have the gravitas to make Round Two. It is said to be an interesting look into "class conflict" in Cuba, where rich and poor continue to exist despite decades of Communism.

9. PERU- "Octubre"
8. BRAZIL- "Tropa de Elite 2"
7. VENEZUELA- "Rumble of the Stones"

These four Latino films have gotten generally good reviews (especially Venezuela) but are extreme long-shots to make the Top Nine films worldwide. The biggest is obviously BRAZIL's high-octane blockbuster sequel "Tropa de Elite 2". The original "Tropa de Elite" was hotly tipped to rep Brazil in 2007, but was beat out by "The Day My Parents Went on Vacation". Considering the failure of "City of God" to make the shortlist, this was a wise move ("Vacation" was the last Brazilian film to make the shortlist, though it didn't really deserve it). Choosing a sequel is risky (will viewers "get it" without seeing the original) and this genre has traditionally done nothing for the Academy. The film has gotten good reviews, but won't score here.

The Dominicans and Peruvians have the opposite problem...Their films (a dramatic comedy and a comedic drama) are very "small". PERU's "Octubre", about a small-time loan shark who finds a baby abandoned on his doorstep by a local prostitute, won Un Certain Regard in Cannes 2010, but it's quite minimalist and will probably get lost in the crowd. The DOMINICAN REPUBLIC rejoins the competition for the first time since 1995's silly but fun comedy "Nueba Yol". Welcome back! They've chosen quirky comedy "Love Child" (La Hija Natural), about a girl who searches for her biological father after the untimely death of her mother. It's supposed to be a good film with lots of local culture but I don't fancy it's chance of making the Top Nine. Still, it's an excellent opportunity for Dominican cinema to be seen by some of Hollywood's movers and shakers. I look forward to seeing "Child", and I never would have heard of the film without this competition.

For the second year in a row, VENEZUELA has selected a strong social drama about a poor Venezuelan family headed by a hard-working single mother with two sons. That said, this year's "Rumble of the Stones", about a family who moved to Caracas years after devastating floods destroyed their rural home, has gotten less publicity than last year's "Hermano". In the end, I think "Stones" will place fairly well, but the gritty subject matter and occasional lapses into soap opera (so I've heard) will make it finish high...but not high enough....

6. CHILE- "Violeta"
5. NEW ZEALAND- "The Orator"
4. COLOMBIA- "Colors of the Mountain"

Chile and Colombia, each fighting for their first Oscar nomination, have each chosen films with a strongly local flavor. "Violeta", from CHILE, is an autobiographical film about Violeta Parra, a beloved leftist folk singer who committed suicide in 1967. "Colors of the Mountain", from COLOMBIA is about a young boy and his friends growing up amidst the violent Colombian countryside where ordinary people are caught up in the war between the military and FARC guerillas. You can see "Colors of the Mountain" on Netflix if you like. Both films have gotten good reviews and have a very small chance at making the Oscar shortlist. In the end, I think "Violeta" is too local (few have probably heard of Violeta Parra in Los Angeles....I know I haven't), and while "Colors" may benefit from its baity "cute children in peril" plotline, I think it will be left behind by bigger films. The large committee probably won't rank it in the Top Six, and the small committee will be too busy rescuing bigger films. We'll see...

Then there's "The Orator" from SAMOA, although it is representing NEW ZEALAND. Director Tusi Tamasese is a NZ citizen based in Wellington, but the film truly belongs to the tiny island nation of SAMOA, the home of its cast and of the Samoan language, put on film for the first time. This exotic and original tale is about a little person (a Samoan Peter Dinklage??) from a chiefly family and the village intrigues surrounding him, his normal-sized wife, her child, and his family. It's been warmly received, but most people note that the film is most outstanding for providing a window into Samoan culture. Tamasese is a debut director, and the Oscars have not widely embraced films that are notable primarily for cultural interest (i.e. "Ten Canoes", "Story of the Weeping Camel"). "The Orator" is a dark horse, but may just miss the cut.

3. MOROCCO- "Omar Killed Me"
2. MEXICO- "Miss Bala"

Two "based on a true story" dramas have a good chance of making the final list....

MEXICO's "Miss Bala", a thriller about a girl from the barrio who ends up getting mixed up with gangsters and drug dealers in an effort to win a local beauty pageant, easily has some of the best foreign-language reviews of the year. It's not a sure thing, but its strong reviews and wide appeal should overcome skittishness about violence (like "Amores Perros") and make the Final Nine and ultimately probably the Final Five. It will soon be released Stateside. Can't wait.

If we're going to be honest, "Omar Killed Me" is a French film, but it's representing MOROCCO, and giving that North African country their best-ever chance for a nomination. The film has much the same team as the Oscar nominated "Indigenes" and "Outside the Law" (which both represented Algeria), with Moroccan-French Roschdy Zem (who co-starred in those two films) directing Sami Bouajila (who also co-starred in both films) while Rachid Bouchareb (who wrote and directed those two films) co-wrote and producd. "Omar" is based on a famous murder case from the South of France in which a Moroccan immigrant is accused of killing a wealthy French woman. He is convicted on the basis of the French woman allegedly writing "Omar m'a tuer" on the wall in her dying moments...For those of you who speak French, this is an obvious grammatical error that no French person would ever make, making it highly unlikely that this educated lady would have one it herself. "Omar" is said to be a strong legal drama and an "issue film" about racial discrimination in France. Reviews have been positive but far from perfect...This team and these issues have resonated with the Oscar committee before and this film film will be on the bubble to make the next round.

1. CANADA- "Monsieur Lazhar"- Almost as much of a lock as "A Separation", Canada's "Monsieur Lazhar" is about an Algerian immigrant (is he illegal?) who substitutes for a Quebecois middle school class after their teacher commits suicide. "Lazhar" pushes all the Oscar buttons- great reviews, esteemed teacher, cute kids, social issues, French language. It's been quietly earning strong notices from nearly all the critics that have seen it and should be considered a real threat for the win. Canada has been shortlisted four of the past five years (ironically the best one, "I Killed My Mother", was NOT shortlisted) and this one will probably be added to the pile.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 32- 8 from North America, 9 from South America, 12 from Africa and 3 from Oceania.

Number of countries participating this year: 16

Number of countries disqualified: Puerto Rico, for the dumbest reasons ever. (See Below). I’ve also heard that the Central African Republic was disqualified from sending “Oka”. Although it was set and filmed in that remote country, “Oka” had an American director, an international cast and no evidence of any significant local crew.

Number of countries opting out: 16, I suppose….But nine of these countries have only submitted a film one time (especially the Africans), and two others (Australia and Nicaragua) don’t appear to have any eligible films. Also absent this year: ALGERIA (nominated last yeasr), BOLIVIA, ECUADOR, TUNISIA and, most surprisingly COSTA RICA, which had probably their best-ever film year ever and whose “Of Love and Demons” was supposedly well-received last year. I was sure they would send child abuse drama “Cold Water of the Sea”.

From Africa, I really thought we’d see CHAD and CONGO-KINSHASA rejoining the competition. “Viva Riva”, a gangster drama set in Kinshasa, is easily the most acclaimed movie ever to come out of the war-torn CONGO, and it actually got a well-reviewed US release. Perhaps it didn’t get an Oscar-eligible release in Kinshasa? Anyway, it’s near the top of my Netflix queue...However, it’s CHAD’s “A Screaming Man” that shocked me by not being submitted. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun is impoverished Chad’s only film director and his “Abouna” was submitted in 2002. Since then, he has made two much more-acclaimed films including “A Screaming Man”, which won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2010, and I can confirm it did get a local release in N’Djamena’s only cinema in January 2011. Chad is not likely to ever have a more likely contender. Oh well.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Three or four.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Six- Afrikaans (South Africa), Arabic (Egypt), French (Canada + Morocco), Portuguese (Brazil), Samoan (New Zealand) and Spanish (the other ten). I’ve heard that the South African film almost contained too much English to qualify.

Highest profile film: Two popular Latin American thrillers- Mexico’s beauty queen thriller, “Miss Bala” and Brazil’s box-office smash sequel “Tropa de Elite 2”.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Canada, as usual.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Uruguay’s low-budget horror movie “The Quiet House”.

Number of Comedies: The Dominican Republic sent in a comedy-drama, “Love Child”

Number of Animated Films or Documentaries: Colombia is said to have seriously considered an animated documentary, “Little Voices”, but ultimately passed it over.

Number of Horror Films: One straightforward horror film, “The Quiet House” from Uruguay.

Oscar History: New Zealand has entered the race for the first time, although the film really should be representing its native Samoa, instead of the Kiwis who funded it.

None of these directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar before but two- Venezuela’s Alejandro Bellame Palacios (“The Color of Fame”) and Chile’s Andres Wood (“Machuca”) have represented their countries in the Oscar race once before. Wood is said to have come close to a nomination.

Argentina, Canada and South Africa have all won the award at least once before, while Brazil and Mexico have been nominated on multiple occasions. Cuba, Peru and Puerto Rico have one Oscar nomination each, while the others (Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Morocco, Uruguay and Venezuela) are awaiting their first official Oscar nomination. Uruguay was nominated and disqualified in 1993 after it was discovered the film was actually wholly Argentine. The Egyptians have been sending movies without luck since 1957, holding the record (tied with Portugal) of the most submissions without an Oscar nod.

Number of Female Directors: Two- the Dominican Republic’s Leticia Tonos and Puerto Rico’s Sonia Fritz, who was disqualified.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Argentina’s Fernando Spiner is the oldest at 53….. 28-year old Oliver Hermanus of South Africa is by far the youngest director in the entire competition this year , and it’s not even his film debut!

Familiar Faces: There really aren’t many familiar faces at all...French movie star Sami Bouajila, who plays the title lead in Morocco’s “Omar Killed Me”, is about as famous as it gets...I’m a fan of Canadian actress Danielle Proulx (the mom in “C.R.A.Z.Y.”) who co-stars in “Monsieur Lazhar"...And Edward James Olmos and Tony Plana (“Ugly Betty”) co-star in the disqualified submission from Puerto Rico.

Tough Choices: Small countries like Chile and Morocco had really great film years that made it difficult to choose just one film. Perhaps the highest-profile film to miss the Oscar race this year was Chile's "Post-Mortem" (Venice 2010) about a morgue attendant searching for a woman during the Pinochet era. Morocco's incest drama "Pegasus" won Best Picture at FESPACO in Burkina Faso, but lost the Oscar nod to majority French drama "Omar Killed Me" (a blow to local filmmakers, but also a wise move if they want to be nominated)

Argentina's Oscar winner Juan Jose Campanella made an inquiry directly to AMPAS to ask that "El Estudiante" be certified as eligible to rep Argentina (there was some technical issue that I didn't understand) and AMPAS said okay, leading many to believe that it would be selected over the other favorite, "Chinese Takeaway". Eventually both lost in a shock vote to unheralded western "Aballay". ("Chinese Takeaway" got sent to the Goyas (where it was nominated) AND won Best Picture over the other two at the Argentine Oscars in December. Cuba's "Ticket to Paradise" also got sent to the Goyas.

Egypt chose Cairo winner "Lust" over three other contenders including Omar Sharif's expensive "The Traveller", "Hawi" and my prediction, sexual harassment drama "Cairo 678".

Mexico's expensive "El Baile de San Juan" seemed like a good contender...until it opened to bad reviews.

Also out of luck this year: "Cafe de Flore" from Canada (trailer looks so great!), animated war documentary "Little Voices" from Colombia, "The Kid Who Lies" (Berlin) from Venezuela.

Controversies and Changes: The biggest controversy was the fact that AMPAS all of a sudden decided that Puerto Rican filmmakers don't deserve Oscar nominations. See above.

The DOMINICAN REPUBLIC was briefly disqualified when it was announced its Oscar committee hadn't been submitted to AMPAS in advance (they hadn't entered the competition in 16 years), but that was eventually resolved.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I got Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, South Africa and Venezuela, plus I predicted “The Orator” would get sent by Samoa upon its release. I came really close with Brazil and Mexico...kicking myself for not getting those two easy ones...

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've already seen Uruguay’s “La Casa Muda” but I’m really looking forward to seeing SOUTH AFRICA's acclaimed LGBT drama “Beauty”.

Last year's race: Last year, these three regions sent 16 films and they took four spots on the nine-film shortlist. I managed to see the ones from Algeria, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru, South Africa and Venezuela. PERU's “Contracorriente” was far and away the best one, while Argentina and Colombia were the worst.

TOMORROW: Final Predictions for the 9-film shortlist

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2011-2012 OSCAR FOREIGN FILMS- Asia (16 Films)

Oscar has little taste for Asia, but many people are saying this could be their year! With IRAN's engrossing drama "A Separation" the deserved frontrunner for the award, films from CHINA, ISRAEL, JAPAN, LEBANON and TURKEY are also being talked about for potential nominations....In reality, I think only two of these have a good chance (see below) as does the dark horse from HONG KONG....But in a relatively weak year, it's anybody's game.

16. KAZAKHSTAN- "Returning to the A"
15. INDONESIA- "Under the Protection of the Ka'bah"
14. THAILAND- "Kon Khon"
13. SINGAPORE- "Tatsumi"

Better luck next year to four of my favorite countries...Once again, I applaud all of them for entering the competition (especially Singapore, which makes a lot of fun films and which is returning to the competition after a two-year absence) and getting their films seen in Hollywood.

INDONESIA and THAILAND have chosen visually rich period dramas that did not get particularly good reviews at home. In fact, both have been dismissed as little more than soap operas..."Under the Protection of the Ka'bah" is based on an acclaimed novel and set in 1920s Sumatra. With a budget of nearly 3 million US dollars (high by local standards), "Ka'bah" took nearly three years to make. It sounds impressive on paper but this religious melodrama about a poor boy who falls in love with a rich girl and dreams of a pilgrimage to Mecca (also a theme in the Indian submission) got mixed reviews even in Indonesia. THAILAND (where I used to live) has chosen a film set in the 1960s focusing on the rivalry of two traditional "khon" dance troupes. "Kon Khon" was a box-office flop in Thailand and got mixed reviews. Even the Ministry of Culture is under no illusions about the film's Oscar chances, saying that it was selected for its ability to promote Thai culture through cinema (which it does through lovely performances of Thai "khon" dance). For a good review of Thailand's submissions over the years see the following article from CNN.

KAZAKHSTAN 's film, a 3D action movie about a documentary film crew getting into trouble in modern-day Afghanistan, looks like a total mess. The trailer looks like a straight-to-video 80s action movie and I don't think it has played at a single international film festival. The Kazakhs usually send good movies to the competition and expect them to be in the running next year with expensive period epic "Myn Bala".

Unlike the other three, SINGAPORE's film has actually managed to get good reviews...However, it doesn't pass the mainstream test. A Japanese-language homage to an obscure Japanese comic book artist, this graphic animated film recreates scenes from Yoshihiro Tatsumi's life as well as some of his most disturbing stories. I look forward to seeing it (more so than the other three) but it's simply too weird and not what Oscar goes for....


12. TAIWAN- "Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow"
11. VIETNAM- "The Prince and the Pagoda Boy"
10. PHILIPPINES- "The Woman in the Septic Tank"
9. KOREA- "The Front Line"

The Asian countries love to send in historical epics, which is what KOREA, TAIWAN and VIETNAM have done this year. Historical epics are always risky...On the one hand, they tend to have big budgets and impressive technical features...On the other, they often depend on knowing local history and, in Asia especially, often double as action movies with lots of blood and battlefield scenes.

TAIWAN's "Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow" is sure to alienate Oscar voters with its 4-hour, 25-minute running time and its rampant bloody beheadings. While it was a big hit in its native Taiwan, this film about aboriginal groups fighting against cultural annihilation during the early 20th century Japanese occupation of the island has not been warmly embraced by Western critics. The Hollywood Reporter complimented the period look, but said that non-stop fighting was "tedious" (and they screened an abridged 2 1/2 hour version!!)

VIETNAM's "Prince and the Pagoda Boy" (originally called "Thang Long Aspiration") is about a 9th century battle over the royal succession, filled with lovely costumes and lots of martial arts fighting. The Vietnamese are clearly trying to emulate recent Chinese period epics. There's very little information on the film online but the one Western review I saw was largely negative.

SOUTH KOREA has a better shot with "The Front Line", a box-office hit drama about the closing days of the Korean War when both North and South were trying to make last-minute territorial gains in anticipation of a permanent ceasefire. I just bought it on ebay and am now waiting for it to arrive. Oscar has never gone for Korean films before (not even the great Korean War drama "Taegukgi"), and I think this film will strike Oscar voters as little more than a well-done action movie...not an Oscar nominee.

THE PHILIPPINES haven't chosen an epic at all...They've chosen another comedy (their third in six years), this one lampooning independent filmmaking in the Philippines. "The Woman in the Septic Tank" is a tongue-in-cheek movie about Filipino producers trying to make an Oscar-winning picture. To do that, they enlist an A-list actress (Eugene Domingo, playing a parody of herself) to play an impoverished Filipino woman whose life is falling apart, which indeed is what most Filipino films on the Film Fest circuit tend to be about! The film was a big hit and is said to be very clever, but probably has too much silliness and too many in-jokes to make a dent here. Hopefully it will entertain the committee....I think it looks great!


8. INDIA- "Abu, Son of Adam"
7. TURKEY- "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia"
6. JAPAN- "Postcard"
5. LEBANON- "Where Do We Go Now?"

All of these films will have their supporters, but lack a fundamental element in getting to the next round. From two of the Middle East's most cosmopolitan centers, LEBANON and TURKEY are often cited as among this year's favorites. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia" won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and Ceylan's "Three Monkeys" was shortlisted three years ago. Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now" won the People's Choice Award in Toronto, joining a series of films that went on to win Best Foreign Film (Antonia's Line, Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger and Tsotsi) and even Best Picture (American Beauty, King's Speech, Slumdog Millionaire).

I think both films face an uphill battle....LEBANON's film is a comedy-drama based on the Lysistrata about Christian and Muslim women using sex to control their menfolk in a bitterly sectarian town. Toronto award notwithstanding, "Where" has actually gotten fairly unspectacular reviews, with some questioning whether it truly deserved the prize. It may be too lightweight although, as I keep saying, it's a weak year for foreign film. TURKEY's "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia" is wowing auteur critics, but this slow, plotless film about a team looking for a corpse in rural Turkey is said to be a hard slog to get through. The Hollywood Reporter jokes that it takes 90 minutes before the film has its first plot point. The film sounds just awful (I hated Ceylan's "Distant", although "3 Monkeys" was better) but it does have a small chance of being selected by the Elite Committee (which they probably did with "Three Monkeys"). A real dark horse.

The films from INDIA and JAPAN have been well-received at home, but have not won any major awards outside their home countries. Both are said to be good films but lack the gravitas to advance to the next round. INDIA's "Abu, Son of Adam" is about a poor, elderly Muslim couple from Kerala (Southwest India) who dream of making a pilgrimage to Mecca before they die. JAPAN's "Postcard" is a semi-autobiographical film set in post-World War II Japan, when a soldier returns to his hometown to deliver a letter to the wife of a late soldier. Both films have wonderful backstories...."Abu" is a low-budget film that managed to beat hundreds of big-budget Hindi-language blockbusters to win Best Picture at the National Film Awards and grab the country's Oscar nod..."Postcard" is directed by a 99-year old respected director (and WWII veteran) who has said this will be his final film. In the end, both films are said to be overly sentimental (is that good or bad with the large committee) and appeal to local tastes and history. I simply don't have faith they can make it to the next round.


4. HONG KONG- "A Simple Life"
3. ISRAEL- "Footnote"
2. CHINA- "Flowers of War"

I think that at least one of these films will be able to climb above the pack and join the Iranians on the shortlist...But which one? CHINA's 90 million dollar blockbuster "The Flowers of War" about the Rape of Nanjing from the perspective of an American man, looks great and is directed by Zhang Yimou. It's also one of only two Oscar submissions to get a Golden Globe nomination, which are a pretty good pre-cursor (although not all the Oscar submissions were eligible). Add to that its WWII plotline and its comforting amount (40%) of English dialogue, and the film looks like a good bet. Having said that, US reviews for "War" have been decidely mixed. I've predicted that Chinese "spectacle" would impress the Oscar committee before ("Curse of the Golden Flower", "Aftershock") but have been wrong every time. I still think "Flowers" has a good shot, but it could come in tenth place due to....

ISRAEL. The Israelis have done exceptionally well in recent years with an impressive three back-to-back nominations from 2008-2010. "Footnote", is the story of a bitter father-son rivalry in the world of Jewish Talmudic religious studies. It won Best Screenplay at Cannes, and has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. "Footnote" really does not sound like an exciting film, but reviews have been fairly strong overall. Howeverm, the film definitely has detractors who point out that the extremely esoteric subject matter will make the film a hard sell to many viewers. I think Israel may well be the "bubble" film fighting for 9th or 10th place.

No director from HONG KONG has ever been nominated in this category. Both of Hong Kong's Foreign Oscar nominations were films made by Mainland Chinese directors (Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige) working in Mainland China. Starring two of Hong Kong's most well-regarded actors, "A Simple Life" is the story of the lifelong relationship between a man (Andy Lau) and his aging "a-mah" (nanny; Deannie Yip). Despite winning Best Actress in Venice, this "small" film has not been talked about very much, but I think it has an excellent chance to appeal to the larger Oscar committee. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive (although not universally excellent) and this is the sort of sentimental film that Oscar usually goes for. Good luck to Hong Kong.

1. IRAN- "Nader & Simin: A Separation"

For all the strategizing and campaigning, the best way to get nominated for an Oscar is still to make a great film that everybody recognizes is a great film. Asghar Farhadi has done that with "A Separation".

I won't gush about the film because so many people have said it all already. The film is a mystery, a thriller, a family drama, a love story gone wrong and, perhaps most importantly, a window into modern Iranian life. Just go and see "A Separation", and let's hope it gets nominated for Best Screenplay as well. I don't believe a film can ever be a lock for the win (maybe "Crouching Tiger", which charmed the US in a very weak year for foreign films), but if the large committee ignores it (and they've ignored great films before), the elite committee will be sure to save it. It's on the Shortlist.

On a sidenote, it will be interesting to see if the Iranians try to withdraw "A Separation" if Israel is nominated alongside it...I know they have rules in the Olympics about not competing directly against Israel. Anyway, it won't matter because AMPAS will surely refuse to withdraw the film (CHINA tried unsuccessfully to withdraw "Ju Dou" two decades ago) and "Separation" will likely win.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 31

Number of countries participating this year: 16

Number of countries disqualified: None that I'm aware of....

Number of countries opting out: 15, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Palestine. The others have only ever submitted once or twice in Oscar history (Bhutan, Cambodia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan) or haven't submitted in over two decades (Kuwait and Pakistan).

The most surprising absentee from Asia is clearly BANGLADESH, which has sent films for six years in a row, and which had two major releases this year ("Runway" and "Guerilla") that could have represented the country with honor. Not sure why they skipped....I also expected that either IRAQ would send "Qarantina" or JORDAN would send "Fish Above Sea Level". I had also hoped that CAMBODIA ("Lost Loves") and PAKISTAN ("Bol") would return after long absences, but apparently there's nobody there interested in forming a committee and filling out the paperwork. Expect the Palestinians to be back in contention next year with "Habibie".

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Four strong films and three outside dark horses.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15 in 16 films- Arabic, Cantonese, Farsi, Filipino, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malayalam, Mandarin, Russian, Seediq, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese. Interestingly, Japanese is the most-represented language (Japan, Singapore and half of Taiwan's film). China's film is roughly 45% in English.

Highest profile film: It's a toss-up between Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War", starring Christian Bale (China) and "Nader & Simin: A Separation" (Iran), which has been receiving accolades worldwide, including the Golden Bear in Berlin.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Iran.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Kazakhstan's 3D action movie, "Returning to the A"

Number of Comedies: Two. Lebanon and the Philippines

Number of Animated Films: One, from Singapore.

Number of Documentaries or Horror Films: None, although Taiwan's features a whole lot of realistic beheading.

Oscar History: Two Oscar nominees are in the mix- China's Zhang Yimou has been nominated for an Oscar three times ("Hero" and "Ju Dou", representing China and "Raise the Red Lantern", representing Hong Kong), plus four other times in which he was chosen to rep China.....And Israel's Joseph Cedar, who is representing Israel for the fourth time, including one nomination for "Beaufort".

Six other directors have represented their countries in the Oscar race before- Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey, "Distant" and the shortlisted "Three Monkeys"), Asghar Farhadi (Iran, "About Elly"), Ann Hui (Hong Kong, "Ordinary Heroes", "Summer Snow"), Eric Khoo (Singapore, "My Magic, the disqualified "Be With Me") Nadine Labaki (Lebanon, "Caramel") and Wei Te-Sheng (Taiwan, "Cape No. 7)

Japan and Taiwan are the only countries to have won a Foreign Oscar award. China, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Kazakhstan and Vietnam have all been nominated (though the HK nominees were for Mainland China productions), and Turkey has made the 9-film shortlist once before. The other seven, including Korea and the Philippines which have sent films for decades, have had no luck so far.

Number of Female Directors: Two- Hong Kong's Ann Hui and Lebanon's Nadine Labaki.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Japan's Kaneto Shindo will celebrate his 100th birthday in April, likely making him the oldest director EVER in this competition (Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira and his "Belle Toujours" were selected when he was a mere 98). He says "Postcard" will be his last film. There are no really young Asian directors in the mix....Youngest is South Korea's Jang Hun, who is 36.

Familiar Faces: Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale, who plays the lead role in China's "Flowers of War", is obviously the biggest name in the competition, with Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau ("A Simple Life") a distant second. "Flowers" co-stars Paul Schneider (Parks & Recreation), while "Simple Life" features cameos by Sammo Hung and Anthony Wong.

The cast of Japan's "Postcard" may not be well-known, but its five leading cast members have accumulated 33 Japanese Oscar nominations for acting.

Lior Ashkenazi (Israel), Sorapong Chatree (Thailand), Eugene Domingo (Philippines), Vivian Hsu (Taiwan), Nadine Labaki (Lebanon), Shin Ha-kyun (Korea) and Deannie Yip (Hong Kong) are fairly well-known in their respective countries.

Tough Choices: "The Outrage" from Thailand apparently was close to being chosen, but the Thais didn't want to choose a remake (of Oscar winner "Rashomon") over an original film.

Other films that appear to have just missed the cut included "Restoration" (Israel), "Dhobi Ghat: Mumbai Diaries" (India), "The Yellow Sea" (South Korea), which were all officially shortlisted. Also, "Let the Bullets Fly" (China), "1911" (Hong Kong) and "Norwegian Wood" (Japan).

Controversies and Changes: Some grumbled that "Flowers of War" was nearly 50% in English, making it a questionable pick for "Best Foreign Language Film", but most people seem satisfied since it is mostly in Chinese.

There potentially could have been a controversy from Iran..."Nader & Simin: A Separation" was originally announced by Iranian news agencies as the country's Oscar nominee, but these stories were deleted from the web a few days later and a "shortlist" of films was announced, leading some to believe that the controversial film by a director who has criticized the government was going to be replaced by a less politically sensitive choice. In the end, the Iranians selected "A Separation" anyway and the country will likely benefit by grabbing their first Oscar!

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 5- Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon, Singapore and Taiwan. I predicted the films from India, Israel, Korea, Turkey and Vietnam as alternates. China and Hong Kong didn't exactly play fair, since they chose films that opened in late 2011, but which had one-week qualifying runs specifically to compete for an Oscar....

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've already seen the brilliant "Nader & Simin: A Separation" (Iran; A), but I'm dying to see "The Woman in the Septic Tank" (Philippines) based on the hilarious trailer.

Last year's race: I saw 13 of last year's 17 Asian nominees....Japan's brilliant "Confessions" was without a doubt the best, while Thailand's Cannes-winning mess "Uncle Boonmee" was the worst one I saw....I'll see a fourteenth- Turkey's "Bal"- soon.

NEXT UP: The 16 films from the Rest of the World, namely The Americas, Africa and Oceania.