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

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