Friday, December 21, 2012

FINAL PREDICTIONS

The final shortlist should be announced in a few hours....Here are my final predictions....

In the end, I think the elite committee will save "Beyond the Hills" and "No" over contenders like "Blancanieves" and "Pieta"....But it will be a close race. I also am taking a risk and saying that "the beautifully shot but low on plot" films from Kazakhstan and Norway will fail to impress the voters. And I haven't forgotten ITALY's weird "Caesar Must Die"...I think it's out of the running.

I'm also predicting that a lot of recent buzz about "After Lucia" and the dreary, boring world of "Barbara" will bring those two films a lot closer than I previously thought....Will they make it?

We'll find out soon enough!

FINAL SHORTLIST (in order) of likelihood:
1. AUSTRIA- "Amour"
2. DENMARK- "A Royal Affair"
3. ISRAEL- "Fill the Void"
4. AUSTRALIA- "Lore"
5. CANADA- "War Witch"
6. SOUTH AFRICA- "Little One"
7. CHILE- "No"
8. CZECH REPUBLIC- "In the Shadow"
9. ROMANIA- "Beyond the Hills"

VERY STRONG CONTENDERS:
10. MEXICO- "After Lucia"
11. SPAIN- "Blancanieves"
12. FRANCE- "Les Intouchables"
13. GERMANY- "Barbara"
14. KOREA- "Pieta"
15. SWITZERLAND- "Sister"
16. BELGIUM- "A perdre la raison"
17. SERBIA- "When Day Breaks"
18. PHILIPPINES- "Bwakaw"

DARK HORSES:
19. POLAND- "80 Million"
20. ICELAND- "The Deep"
21. SWEDEN- "The Hypnotist"
22. NORWAY- "Kon-Tiki"
23. CHINA- "Caught in the Web"
24. KYRGYZSTAN- "Empty Home"
25. KAZAKHSTAN- "Myn Bala"
26. AFGHANISTAN- The Patience Stone"
27. HUNGARY- "Just the Wind"
28. KENYA- "Nairobi Half Life"
29. CAMBODIA- "Lost Loves"
30. ALGERIA- "Zabana!"

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS- Asian Submissions (17 Films)

So, I originally thought the shortlist would be announced next week but apparently it's tomorrow, forcing me to do a very quick Asian round-up (I'll fill it in later) before posting my final predictions early tomorrow morning.

I typically love the Asian films, and they are here in record numbers! I have been fortunate enough to visit sixteen of the seventeen countries from this group (sorry, Afghanistan) and watching always brings back good memories of the people and places I visited.

Unfortunately, I do not expect to see any of these seventeen films on the shortlist, though Korea and the Philippines are dark horses (for very different reasons which I'll go into below).

Welcome back to CAMBODIA (submitting for the first time since 1994)....if there was an Oscar for best backstory, this labor of love would be a contender. Financed with their life savings, husband and wife team Chhay Bora and Kauv Southeary directed (Bora), starred (Southeary) and wrote this film about the life of Southeary's mother who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 70s. In doing so, they have put the cambodian film industry back on the map. I hope the presence of "Lost Loves" on the long list has brought the film some much needed publicity and attention. I can't wait to see it.

NO CHANCE AT ALL:

17. SINGAPORE- "Already Famous"16. VIETNAM- "Scent of Burning Grass"
15. MALAYSIA- "Bunohan: Return to Murder"
14. HONG KONG- "Life Without Principle"
13. THAILAND- "Headshot"
12. BANGLADESH- "Pleasure Boy Komola"

These six films have won few awards internationally and have made very little impact on the international film festival circuit. I've seen the films from BANGLADESH, HONG KONG, MALAYSIA and THAILAND and they all strike me as quite unlikely to appeal much to either the larger or small committee, as do the ones from SINGAPORE and VIETNAM. That said, they're all interesting films, and I'm glad these countries have entered the competition so that we can see the best of Southeast Asian, Bangladeshi + Hong Kong cinema.

I haven't seen the entries from SINGAPORE and VIETNAM, but a commercial comedy celebrating Singaporean pop culture and a jingoistic Communist war drama aren't exactly the sorts of movies that could be expected to advance. "Already Fsmous" is a romantic comedy about a small-town Malaysian Chinese girl who heads to Singapore to make it in the TV industry. It was a box-office hit at home and features a lot of local celebrities but it's hardly an Oscar nominee. "The Scent of Burning Grass" is about four young North Vietnamese students who join the anti-US resistance in 1971. They engage in an 81-day battle and only one survives...It won Best Film at the Golden Kite Awards but this sort of patriotic, government production is unlikely to resonate with US audiences.

MALAYSIA's "Bunohan" is only the second movie ever to represent Malaysia. Although the poster makes it look like an action/kickboxing movie, it's actually more of a soap opera of family intrigue about three brothers living around the Thai-Malaysian border. It's an interesting story and it got a surprisingly rave review from Variety (comparing it to "The Godfather", Shakespeare and The Bible no less!) but it's also a little bit confusing and uncomfortably straddles the line between action and arthouse. From across the border in THAILAND comes another action flick- Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Headshot" (available on Netflix). I'm a big Pen-ek fan (although I didn't like his most acclaimed work, "Last Life in the Universe" at all) and "Headshot", the story of a hit man whose vision turns upside down after being shot, is certainly an entertaining film but it's not Oscar-calibre (It didn't even win Best Picture at the Thai Oscars this year). It's a solid 8/10 thriller but not a threat here.

I was surprised how much I liked BANGLADESH's "Pleasure Boy Komola", which you can watch with English subtitles on Youtube. During the monsoon season, a rich landowner commissions a troupe of musicians to perform for him at his estate. The star of the impoverished troupe is the 12-year old son of the troupe's leader, who performs as a dancer in drag attire as part of a traditional art form. The landowner lusts after the young boy. It's the sort of film that actually might have had a chance at a nomination in the 1960s or 1970s, with lots of catchy music and local color but production values are modest (the dubs are sometimes off) and the acting a bit melodramatic. I recommend seeing it, but it's not a contender. HONG KONG's "Life Without Principle" is the fourth action movie by Johnnie To to represent Hong Kong, and none of the entries have yet come close. "Principle"- three interlocking stories of people desperate for money against the background of the Asian financial crisis- has gotten mixed reviews. I found it entertaining enough, but it's more or less forgettable.

UNLIKELY:
11. JAPAN- "Our Homeland:"
10. TAIWAN- "Touch of the Light"
9. CAMBODIA- "Lost Loves"
8. INDONESIA- "The Dancer"
7. INDIA- "Barfi!"

ASIAN DARK HORSES:
6. AFGHANISTAN- "The Patience Stone"
5. KAZAKHSTAN- "Myn Bala"
4. KYRGYZSTAN- "Empty Home"
3. CHINA- "Caught in the Web"

FRONT-RUNNERS:
2. PHILIPPINES- "Bwakaw"
1. SOUTH KOREA- "Pieta"
The PHILIPPINES and SOUTH KOREA have entered the Oscar competition since 1957 and 1962 respectively, with absolutely no luck. I've honestly never seen a Filipino submission that was deserving (although i liked Maximo Oliveros and Dekada '70) but for Korea, this is really a shame. The Koreans send outstanding films virtually every year but the increasing global reach of Korean culture still lacks an Oscar nod.

This year, they're both in with a chance.

In all likelihood, the large committee won't like Kim Ki-duk's violent "Pieta" which has gotten Kim's best reviews in years (he was in a bit of a slump) and which won the Golden Lion in Venice. It's about a loan shark/enforcer (complete with scenes of him torturing those who don't pay) who meets a woman who claims to be his long-lost mother. "pieta" stands a strong chance it being "saved" by the elite committee but with Romania, Spain and possibly even Austria and Canada also in need of saving, I fear they not make the cut.

The Philippines' dramedy "Bwakaw" is unlikely to be saved by the auteur committee. It's a simple story of an cantankerous elderly man who discovered rather late in life that he was gay. Despite a rather simplistic plotline (the old man finds friendship with a pet dog), the film has won the hearts and minds of viewers, including at the stuffy New York Film Festival. Nobody seems to have a negative word to say about it, although it really does seem to be just a bit too formulaic and simple to make it here. Ultimately, I think "Bwakaw" will rank high in the Large Committee's rankings, but that it won't make the Top Six to qualify for the next round.
 
Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 24

Number of countries participating this year: 17.

Number of countries opting out: Well, technically seven although two countries (BHUTAN and FIJI) have only ever sent films once and one (PAKISTAN) hasn;t entered in nearly fifty years so they aren't really missed.....

The most notable absence is NEPAL who had a notable contender in "Highway" which played in Berlin. Although it got both positive and negative reviews at home, it is definitely the most high-profile Nepali film (co-produced by Danny Glover) internationally in years. Unfortunately, sources indicate that political squabbling within the National Film Board has meant that the country has no official Oscar committee. What a shame.

Also absent: MONGOLIA, SRI LANKA and TAJIKISTAN

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many....Two strong films, with three dark horses.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Two are majority in Mandarin (China +Taiwan) plus one film each in Bengali, Cantonese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Kazakh, Khmer, Korean, Persian, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese, plus the Kelantese dialect of Malay ("Bunohan").

Also, the Kyrgyz film is in a mix of Kyrgyz, Russian and French, while the Singaporean nominee is in Mandarin, Hokkien, Malay and English.

Highest profile film: Probably Venice Golden Lion winner "Pieta" from South Korea.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: I'd say South Korea edges out the Philippines, but just barely.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Singapore's commercial comedy "Already Famous" which relies a lot on local humor.

Number of Comedies: Three- India, the Philippines and Singapore

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries and Horror Films: None

Oscar History: CHINA's Chen Kaige is the only Oscar nominee in the competition this year from Asia. He represented Hong Kong in 1993, winning an Oscar nomination and later represented China in 2005 and 2009 for "The Promise" and "Forever Enthralled" respectively.

HONG KONG's Johnnie To contended for an Oscar twice in 2003 and 2007 ("Fulltime Killer" & "Exiled") and THAILAND's Pen-ek Ratanaruang competed in 2000, 2002 and 2003.

Humayun Ahmed ("Shyamol Chhaya", 2005), Nurbek Egen ("The Wedding Chest", 2006), Kim Ki-duk ("Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...Spring", 2003), Atiq Rahimi ("Earth & Ashes", 2004) and Akan Satayev ("Strayed", 2010) have all been in the Foreign Oscar competition once before.

JAPAN is the only country that has won multiple Foreign Film Oscars (4 times), though they have only won once since 1956. TAIWAN won once in 2001. INDIA has been nominated three times, CHINA and HONG KONG have been nominated twice each (all by Mainland China directors) and KAZAKHSTAN and VIETNAM have been nominated once. The other ten countries are still waitiing for their first Oscar nod, although

Number of Female Directors: Two. Yang Yong-hi of Japan and Michelle Chong of Singapore are the first-ever female directors to represent their countries here.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: The most senior director was 64-year old Humayun Ahmed of Bangladesh, a renowned author who passed away shortly before "Pleasure Boy Komola" was released. The youngest is 32-year old Rong-ji Chang of Taiwan but I'll admit I have no idea how old the Vietnamese director is.

Familiar Faces: Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani is probably the most familiar face. She co-starred opposite Russell Crowe and Leonardo diCaprio in "Body of Lies" without a headscarf and now lives in exile in France.

Ranbir Kapoor, one of India's most famous comedic actors (and former "Sexiest Man Alive", India edition) is a close second.

"Life Without Principle" from Hong Kong features a recognizable cast to those familiar with Cantonese cinema, including Ching-wan Lau, Terence Yin and pop star Denise Ho.

Former Miss World Priyanka Chopra (India), actor Xueqi Wang (China), TV star and presenter Michelle Chong (Singapore) and veteran actor Eddie Garcia (Philippines) are familiar faces in their home countries but won't be known to Western audiences.

Tough Choices:

Controversies and Changes: The Bangladeshi Film Academy apparently split into two factions a year or two ago, each centered on the two political parties that bicker and fight and prevent anything from getting done....This year, both factions announced that they would be sending films. The government-affiliated faction sent one first- "Pleasure Boy Komola"- and that was the entry that stood (it's unclear if the second faction even bothered or if they just said they would in order to annoy the other one).

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Only three....CAMBODIA, KAZAKHSTAN and KYRGYZSTAN which were all pretty easy. Most of the countries chose films that were released rather late in the year so I hadn't heard of them when I made my predictions in early summer (i.e. "Bwakaw" and "Pieta").

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the nominees from Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia.....Out of the rest, I'm most interested in seeing CAMBODIA's "Lost Loves" and KYRGYZSTAN's "Empty Home", which sound great but which I foresee being difficult to find.

Last year's race: To my shock and surprise, I only saw two of last year's 12 films....the interesting anime "Tatsumi" from Singapore (B+) and the well-meaning but slight "Abu, Son of Adam" from India (C+). I have the DVDs of the entries from China, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan at home and will watch early in the New Year. Thanks to the East Asian countries (except Japan!) for regularly releasing their films on DVD with English subtitles!
 

Monday, December 17, 2012

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS- The Americas, Africa and the Middle East (17 films)

This crop of films from OUTSIDE of Europe and Asia has the potential to contribute half of the Oscar shortlist...

I'd better hurry with these since I just learned that the official Foreign Oscar screenings are finishing tonight.....That means we could see a shortlist of 9 films as early as Wednesday (though I think it will be announced next week)

BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR:
17. COLOMBIA- "The Snitch Cartel"
16. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- "Jaque Mate"
15. URUGUAY- "The Delay"
14. PERU- "The Bad Intentions"

A remake of a telenovela is not usually a country's choice for an Oscar nomination, but that's exactly what COLOMBIA has decided to do with action movie "The Snitch Cartel" (El Cartel de los Sapos) which is a retelling of the 2008 local soap opera of the same name, which in turn was based on the memoirs of a member of one of the country's most notorious drug gangs. While it features an A-list cast and is supposed to be an engaging watch, it really is just a big-screen soap and it won't be able to advance from here.

PERU has chosen "The Bad Intentions", an intriguing dark film about a morbid, upper-class 8-year old girl living amidst terrorism and political turmoil in the early 1980s. The girl, daughter of separated parents, announces that she will die the day that her pregnant mother gives birth. Think Wednesday Addams in "The Official Story", with a dash of "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Heavenly Creatures". These are some of my favorite films, and I can't wait to see it. But while reviewers tend to note debut director Rosario Garcia-Montero as one to watch, reviews have not been strong enough to carry it to the next round, nor has it won the sorts of awards like "Milk of Sorrow" to get a wild card slot.

I managed to see both "Jaque Mate" (DOMINICAN REPUBLIC) and "La Demora" (URUGUAY) at this year's Latin American Film Festival in DC, and I enjoyed both of these obscure films, especially the exciting "Jaque Mate". But they are completely out of their league here. VERY loosely based on a true story from the "Jaque Mate" (aka Check Mate) is the name of the Dominican Republic's most popular talk show, and it's handsome host lives a perfect life in a luxurious mansion with his beautiful wife and young son. During a live broacast, the host receives a phone call from a man who says he is holding his family at gunpoint and that they will not be let go unless he engages in a series of increasingly painful psychological games. It's a nail-biter and great fun to watch, but it's largely a commercial effort and the melodramatic acting won't suit the austere Academy . But I'm so happy the DR sent it, because otherwise I never would have heard of it! One of the more enjoyable films of 2012. URUGUAY's "The Delay" is also about the head of a family (this time an impoverished seamstress/single mother) guarding a secret. However, in all other ways this is the polar opposite of the loud and exciting "Jaque Mate". It's a very quiet, introspective drama about a desperate woman who, in a moment of weakness, abandons her senile father on a park bench in winter the hopes that the authorities will find and take care of him. When she feels guilty about her decision, she discovers him missing. It's a sad story but it's so subdued and quiet that it will easily get lost in the mix here.

UPHILL BATTLE:
13. MOROCCO- "Death for Sale"
12. PALESTINE- "When I Saw You"
11. VENEZUELA- "Rock, Paper, Scissors"
10. KENYA- "Nairobi Half Life"

These four obscure titles haven't made enough of an impact internationally to have a realistic chance of making it in such a competitive year.

KENYA had a film accepted to the Oscars for the first time (they reportedly sent a film- "Heart of Fire"- in 2008 but it was disqualified for not being a majority Kenyan production....it wasn't). Co-produced by German director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"), "Nairobi Half Life" is an exciting fish-out-of-water story/crime drama about a young man newly arrived from the Kenya countryside, determined to make it in the dangerous capital of Nairobi. It is said to present an interesting and polished African twist on the traditional fish-out-of-water story with realism and a sense of humor. Youth, energy and dynamism is not often rewarded in this category so "Nairobi" definitely is a dark horse. If "City of God" couldn't make it, this can't either.

The Arab world sent only three films this year, and two of those were from MOROCCO and PALESTINE. Annemarie Jacir had to film "When I Saw You" in Jordan since she says she is no longer allowed to end the Palestinian Territories where she was born. "When I Saw You" is the story of a family torn apart by the 1967 war with Israel. Focusing on one 12-year old boy whose father is presumed dead and whose mother has fled with him to a Jordanian refugee camp, "When I Saw You" watches this young boy attempting to have a normal childhood in the camps amidst Islamic militants, poverty and, above all, an inability to return home.....The disaffected youth in the Moroccan thriller "Death for Sale" are a great deal older- probably their early 20s at least. When three unemployed young men become involved in a jewelry heist that goes wrong, their lives become even more dangerous than before. It won a minor award in Berlin and the trailer looks downright exciting. Reviews for both films have been mostly positive but not overwheling enough so to rise out of the pack.

VENEZUELA's thriller "Rock, Paper, Scissors" is largely a mystery. The obscure thriller came out of nowhere to grab the Venezuelan nomination. It's a dark tale revolving around two families- one rich, one poor- whose lives become intertwined in the Venezuelan capital amidst drugs, violence, and corruption. After many years of being a non-player in the 1990s, Venezuela has been sending a series of very strong urban drama to Los Angeles over the last few years. The trailer makes it look like a pretty standard melodrama. With zero buzz however, it's destined to be an also-ran.




UNLIKELY DARK HORSES:
9. ARGENTINA- "Clandestine Childhood"
8. BRAZIL- "The Clown"
7. ALGERIA- "Zabana!"
6. MEXICO- "After Lucia"

These four countries are usually strong threats in this category but will ultimately fail to advance this year for one reason or another.

Oscar has previously shown a great deal of interest in the Algerian war for independence ("Battle of Algiers", "Indigenes", "Outside the Law") as well as the Argentine military dictatorship ("The Official Story") and children in peril more generally. ARGENTINA's semi-autobiographical "Clandestine Childhood" swept the Argentine Oscars but this story of a 5th grader living under an assumed name due to his parents' anti-junta political activities has not gotten as strong reviews outside its home country and won few other awards. The Hollywood Reporter was particularly unkind, noting "the picture is too mainstream for arthouses, too arty for multiplexes". Despite the baity subject matter, they're probably out of luck. ALGERIA's "Zabana!" is a tougher one since there is so little information on it online. The film tells the story of the life and death of Algerian freedom fighter Ahmed Zabana, whose execution by the French in 1956 (by guillotine) was a turning point in the Algerian struggle for independence, and also the start of the Oscar nominated "Battle of Algiers" which represented Italy way back in 1966. In the end, I think the politics of the film may be too obscure and the profile of the film too low, but Oscar has shown itself to be passionate about this period of history so I can't be sure.

BRAZIL's "The Clown" was a box-office hit in its native Brazil, and it has gotten some great reviews, but also some pretty bad ones. Director Selton Mello plays part of a father-son team (he is the son) of clowns who work for a financially strapped circus and he's had enough of the aimless travelling circus life, working hard to make others laugh. Those who praise the film note the colors of the cinematography and the handling of the relationship between father and son. Those who hate it say it is slow and boring, despite its short running time, and that its jokes/humor consistently fall flat. Too decisive. I can't see it advancing.

The strongest of this particular group is MEXICO's "After Lucia", a topical film on the subject of bullying which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes 2012. Alejandra lives with her depressed, recently widowed father and has recently moved to another town. Initially popular, Alejandra makes an enemy of one of the popular girls during a drunken party, leading to painful and increasingly violent and disturbing bullying. Said to be shot in a spare minimalist style and uncomfortable to watch, I fear "Lucia" is not what this committee usually goes for.


CONTENDERS:
5. SOUTH AFRICA- "Little One"
4. CHILE- "No"
3. CANADA- "War Witch" (aka Rebelle)

Now onto the real contenders....I'm pretty sure that one or maybe even two of these three films will make it onto the final list of Nine....but not all three. But who's in?

I definitely think it will be CANADA, who has made the shortlist five of the past six years. "War Witch" (a.k.a. "Rebelle", a much more appropriate title) tells the tragic story of a pregnant child soldier fighting in the Congo. The young girl has witnessed atrocities that would devastate a full-grown adult soldier (including the murder of her parents) but the film concentrates of the life of this young woman, rather than the horrors of war. Universally praised, "Witch" may be a bit more challenging that Oscar usually goes for (they usually avoid war unless it takes place in the trenches of 20th century Europe) but it has a good chance of advancing out of both the large and small committees

CHILE's "No", starring Gael Garcia Bernal, is cited all over the web as one of this year's front-runners but I think the film is going to be fighting hard for that ninth and final slot. "No" is the latest film from Pablo Larrain ("Tony Manero", "Post-Mortem") and it focuses on an ad man hired by the anti-Pinochet opposition to help use US-style advertising tactics to help win an anti-Pinochet referendum. The vote, which was thought to be unwinnable, ended up going against the military dictator and helped bring democracy to Chile. "No" has been widely praised for direction, script and filmmaking, but the decision to film it in a cinema-verite style makes the film look less technically impressive that it would otherwise. This may annoy many on the Oscar committee from the technical branches. I always think that's what doomed "4 Months, 3 Weeks"....not the abortion subject matter.

That brings us to SOUTH AFRICA and their "Little One", which has almost no buzz at all (not a single review online) but which has an Oscar-nominated director (Darrell Roodt) and baity subject matter (child rape). AMPAS has shown that they like these sorts of topical South African stories in the past (three of their last six submissions were shortlisted). In the film, a South Americans finds a child who has been brutalized and left for dead. It then appears that she steals her from state custody in order to take care of her. Oscar likes heartwarming stories of adults taking care of children and this one could definitely be a surprise nominee. It's a dark horse.

FRONT-RUNNERS
2. ISRAEL- "Fill the Void"
1. AUSTRALIA- "Lore"

And then there two....I think AUSTRALIA and ISRAEL both have an excellent chance of making the next round.

Nazi children in peril! World War II!!! It's difficult to see Oscar failing to fall for the charms of AUSTRALIA's German-language drama "Lore" (the name of the title character), which looks at a forgotten moment in World War II history. After the Germans are defeated, six siblings aged 1 to 19- all children of devoted Nazis- are forced to undertake a long journey to reach relatives in the aftermath of the German defeat and Allied occupation. It's exactly what Oscar likes and reviews have been very strong.

As for ISRAEL, they have achieved a remarkable record of four nominations in the past five years and they have an excellent chance at a fifth. "Fill the Void" is exactly the sort of voyeuristic look into an faraway culture that this category has traditionally honored. It's an intimate look into the world of Orthodox Jews in modern-day Israel through the eyes of a young bride looking forward to her arranged marriage to a good-looking young man. However, when her sister dies in childbirth, her family considers whether she should marry her sister's husband. It's a story that is said to be told with candor, tenderness and even humor.

Both Australia and Israel should both be considered close to locks.....but there's always one front-runner that the committee just don't seem to like....

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 8 from North America, 9 from South America, 12 from Africa, 7 from the Middle East and 2 from Australia/NZ.

Number of countries participating this year: 17, including first-time entrant Kenya.

Number of countries opting out: Technically 21 but ten of these countries (Guatemala, Jordan, New Zealand and seven African nations) have only ever submitted films once and two (Kuwait and Tunisia) haven’t sent films in ten years or more….so they aren’t really missed. Also, due to a rule change in 2010, Puerto Rico has now been (unfairly) excluded from the competition

The most glaring omission is obviously returning champion IRAN. Despite chilly relations with the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran successfully sent films to the Oscars each and every year between 1997-2011. Only eight non-European nations managed to do this (the others were Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, Mexico and Taiwan). This year, the Iranian Academy announced that they would send family comedy-drama “Cube of Sugar” to defend the Iranian title. After an amateurish anti-Islamic film appeared on Youtube (posted by a Christian Egyptian-American in California), Iran initially announced that they considered boycotting the Oscars but decided that “following an investigation” they would participate since the film had nothing to do with Hollywood and the American film industry. The Iranian Academy said they would send a strongly worded statement to AMPAS along with “Cube of Sugar”, condemning the Youtube video. Within 24 hours, an Iranian Ministry said that, in fact, they would not send their film unless AMPAS apologized for/condemned the Youtube video. When that didn’t happen, the Iranians announced they would boycott. The order clearly came not from the Iranian Academy (which clearly wanted to send the film) but from higher up in the government. “A Separation” was a clear victory for Iran, but not everyone there was happy that a film showing chinks in the Iranian family unit was feted at such a high level. It’s such a shame that Iran is not in the race this year. I hope this is a one-year setback.

Like Iran, BOLIVIA’s Oscar committee met and designated an official Oscar nominee- Jorge Sanjines’ “Insurgentes”, a political drama about the struggle of Bolivian underclasses throughout history. Unfortunately, after contacting the filmmakers, it was decided that there was not enough time to prepare the necessary paperwork to send the film to Los Angeles. PARAGUAY, the only South American nation who has never sent a film to the competition, apparently wanted to send a film for the first time (box-office smash thriller “7 Cajas”), but were told by AMPAS that they were too late to convene an official Oscar committee (http://www.nacion.com/2012-11-23/Entretenimiento/Exitosa-pelicula-paraguaya-7-Cajas-no-podra-postularse-al-Oscar.aspx) .

Two other glaring omissions are EGYPT (which has sent films eight of the past ten years) and LEBANON, which each had a number of suitable contenders. In a year that saw record numbers of nominees from nearly every region of the globe, it’s odd that we have only two from the Middle East (three if you include Turkey). Lebanon was widely expected to send “The Attack” by Ziad Doueiri, a protégé of Quentin Tarantino who was robbed of a Foreign Oscar nod in 1998 for “West Beyrouth”. However, Lebanon’s Oscar committee told Doueiri that the acclaimed film, about a man who learns that his wife committed a suicide bomb attack, would not be considered since it featured a number of Israeli actors. Egypt’s “After the Battle” played in Cannes, but it’s subject matter was criticized by some as “anti-Arab Spring”. I failed to understand why both countries didn’t just choose politically less controversial choices like the beautifully filmed “Heels of War” and AIDS drama “Asmaa.

Variety seemed surprised that SAUDI ARABIA (http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118060469?refcatid=19) did not make its Oscar debut with “Wadjda”, but since Saudi Arabia has no movie theatres, it would be impossible for them to qualify (and the fact that it was directed by a woman only makes it more unlikely).

Also from the Middle East, JORDAN could have easily sent “The Last Friday”, while the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES could have debuted with “Sea Shadow”.

CUBA and ECUADOR took the unusual step of submitting films to the Goya Awards in Spain, but not the Oscars. Cuba’s Communists showed they had a sense of humor by sending zombie horror comedy “Juan of the Dead”, while Ecuador submitted Sebastian Cordero’s breezy comedy-thriller “Pescador”. Cordero likely came close to an Oscar nod for “Cronicas”, so why “Pescador” didn’t get sent, I’ve no idea.

Also absent: COSTA RICA, IRAQ and NICARAGUA

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Five of these seventeen are really serious threats. I also count two long-shots.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 8 in Spanish (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela) and 3 in Arabic (Algeria, Morocco, Palestine), plus one each in Afrikaans, French, German, Hebrew, Portuguese and Swahili.

The Australian film (in German) is only eligible due to the rule change about languages in 2006. The Canadian film, filmed in Congo-Kinshasa, is partly in Lingala.

Highest profile film: It’s a draw between Canada’s “War Witch” (Jury Prize in Berlin, Best Feature at Tribeca) and Gael Garcia Bernal’s “No” from Chile. Mexico’s “After Lucia” (Cannes Un Certain Regard) is in third place in “buzz”.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Probably AUSTRALIA, with its Nazi children in peril.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: COLOMBIA's cinematic remake of a popular TV miniseries, “The Snitch Cartel”

Number of Comedies: Two- Brazil and Peru have sent two fairly dark comedies.

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries and Horror Films: None.

Oscar History: We have one returning Oscar nominee- namely, SOUTH AFRICA’s Darrell Roodt, whose well-meaning (but ultimately underwhelming) AIDS drama “Yesterday” was nominated in the 2004-2005 Oscar season.

Three other directors have represented their countries once before. Ironically, Annemarie Jacir (Palestine, “Salt of this Sea”), Pablo Larrain (Chile, “Tony Manero”) and Carlos Moreno (Colombia, “Dog Eat Dog”) all faced off against each other four years ago in 2008.

Four of the competing countries have won the Oscar (Argentina twice…Algeria, Canada and South Africa once) while five others have been nominated (Brazil, Israel, Mexico, Palestine and Peru). Two more have been shortlisted (Australia and Morocco).
Five of the Latin Americans (Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela) are fighting to advance to the next round for the first time. Of these, Chile has a strong shot.

Number of Female Directors: Four talented ladies in the running- Rama Burshtein (Israel), Rosario Garcia-Montero (Peru), Annemarie Jacir (Palestine) and Cate Shortland (Australia).

Oldest and Youngest Directors: ALGERIA’s Said Ould Khelifa is nearly twenty years older than the next oldest director (Darrell Roodt).

The DOMINICAN REPUBLIC’s Jose Maria Cabral is the youngest helmer from any country in this year’s competition. “Jaque Mate” was released in April three months prior to his 24th birthday.

Familiar Faces: Most of these films feature a cast of unknowns, although two of the South Americans films have quite a bit of starpower, mostly from Mexico. The biggest name clearly comes from CHILE’s “No”, which stars Mexican superstar Gael Garcia Bernal as a man fighting against the Pinochet dictatorship with a slick advertising campaign.

Western audiences will recognize most of the cast of COLOMBIA's thriller (and also-ran) “The Snitch Cartel”, which co-stars American actor Tom Sizemore (“Saving Private Ryan”, “Black Hawk Down”) as a DEA agent and Mexican Oscar-nominated actress Adriana Barazza (“Babel) in small roles, as well as well-known Mexican faces Kuno Becker and the late Pedro Armendariz Jr. It also stars Colombia’s Manolo Cardona who gave one of my favorite performances of 2010 in Peru’s Oscar candidate “Contracorriente”.

Tough Choices: ARGENTINA probably had the toughest choice, with “Clandestine Childhood” beating out “Everybody Has a Plan” (starring Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen), “Las Acacias” (Best Film at the Argentina Silver Condor Awards, Camera d’Or at Cannes 2011), “El Ultimo Elvis” and “White Elephant”, starring Ricardo Darin who has been in virtually every Argentine submission in recent history. “Childhood” hasn’t gotten good reviews outside of its native Argentina so I’m not sure they made the right choice.

CANADA had to turn down Oscar nominee Deepa Mehta’s (“Water”) latest controversial film- “Midnight’s Children”, based on a Salman Rushdie novel. Although I
predicted “Children”, it wasn’t much of a surprise since reviews were mixed and the film may be more than 50% in English. Many thought MEXICO would send Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux”, but this weird mess of a film (it was booed at Cannes where it also won Best Director) never had much of a chance.

Also out “Bonsai” (Chile), “God’s Horses” (Morocco...did it premiere there?), “God’s Neighbors” (Israel), “Habibie” (Palestine...the first Gazan feature film), “The Miracle Worker” (South Africa...It’s not about Helen Keller) and “Sirga” (Colombia).

Controversies and Changes: The biggest controversies were the countries that didn’t send movies (Egypt, Iran and Lebanon….see above). AUSTRALIA’s German-language film would have caused trouble a few years ago but is now a-okay.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: Only two- CHILE and PERU! How embarrassing! I came close with several others, but I was quite honestly surprised by a lot of this year’s choices. Incidentally, I also got BOLIVIA correct, but they decided not to send their film to Los Angeles. Grr….

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve seen the nominees from the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC and URUGUAY, both of which I liked. If I could get a ticket to any one of the other fifteen films, I would definitely choose PERU’s “Bad Intentions”, although I’m also excited to see into the closed cultures of GREENLAND’s “Inuk” and ISRAEL’s “Fill the Void”.

Last year's race: Last year’s these regions of the world sent a total of 19 films (if you count the disqualified submission from Puerto Rico), four of which made the nine-film shortlist. I managed to see 10 of them. IRAN’s “A Separation” (A) was clearly the best one, while LEBANON’s “Where Do We Go Now?” (A-) was clearly second. I was less excited about the other three films that advanced, namely CANADA’s “Monsieur Lazhar” (B), ISRAEL’s “Footnote” (B-) and MOROCCO’s “Omar Killed Me” (B-).

I also saw the rather average films from Colombia (C), Mexico (B-), Peru (C+) and Uruguay (C+)

Next up: the final 17 submissions from Asia.


Monday, December 10, 2012

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS- Eastern Europe (20 Films)

Wow! 20 movies from Eastern Europe! Eight of these are from the former USSR (two more will be reviewed in the Asian section) and five of are from the former Yugoslavia. So the break-ups of those two countries have really increased the number of movies that end up in Hollywood. Even though most of these movies are long-shots, it's nice to see so many countries interested in competing at this level.

BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR:
20. ESTONIA- "Mushrooming"
19. ARMENIA- "If Only Everyone"
18. LATVIA- "Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg"
17. LITHUANIA- "Ramin"
16. UKRAINE- "Firecrosser"

I don't mean to pick on the countries of the former USSR, but I can't see any of these obscure titles advancing, or even coming close.

LITHUANIA has chosen (for the second time) a documentary short. Oscar rules state that a film must be more than 40 minutes long. Clocking in at a spare 58 minutes, "Ramin" tells the story of 75-year old Ramin Lomsadze, a former Soviet champion wrestler who searches for his long-lost love in rural Georgia. It's all said to be very uplifting but this low-key documentary won't be able to keep its head above water in a field of 71 films, especially considering its spare length and a natural prejudice of some voters that documentaries don't really belong in this category.

Telling three separate stories based on Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam, LATVIA's "Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg" is a Russian-language costume drama set in the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries. Each version has a different incarnation of Lilith as seductress in the Latvia of a different century. It sounds fascinating and it looks gorgeous. Its problem is that the narrative is said to make very little sense. Although IMDB ratings have absolutely nothing to do with Oscar predictions, it's interesting to note that "Iceberg" has the lowest rating of all 71 films (5.5)

The final Baltic republic is the least likely of all- I saw ESTONIA's black comedy "Mushrooming" in November, whose story concerns a corrupt politician and his wife going hunting for mushrooms with an obnoxious local rock star. The film is advertised as a dark black comedy filled with murder and mayhem, but without giving much away, this is quite misleading. Not much happens, and by the end you feel like you've spent 90 minutes watching a bickering married couple get lost in the woods (in fact, you have). And somewhat surprisingly, the end message almost seems like it's justifying corruption.

I've also seen UKRAINE's "Firecrosser" which is an interesting film based on the life of Ivan Datsenko, a Ukrainian Soviet war hero who went from national hero to Soviet gulag prisoner to Canadian Indian chief (yes, really....) It's an interesting film about a man whose fascinating life is unknown in the West but this first Ukrainian blockbuster is a bit uneven. Most damaging for its Oscar chances, the third act- set in Canada and with the Ukrainian cast speaking or dubbed mostly in English- is a bit painful to watch. I saw it on http://cinecliq.com/ in case you want to check it out. It's worth a watch, if only to see a film from this beautiful (yet cinematically unknown) country.

Lastly, we have possibly the most obscure film in the Foreign Film race- ARMENIA's patriotic "If Only Everyone"- a government effort which concerns a mixed Armenian-Russian woman who seeks to locate the grave of her father who died in Armenia's war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s. She discovers that the grave lies across the border in enemy Azerbaijan and enlists the help of an Armenian army commander to secretly cross the border and lay flowers at the grave. It won Best Armenian Feature at the Golden Apricot Film Festival but the film has zero buzz and the politics are probably going to be too obscure for the Academy. The Azerbaijanis have protested that the Armenians plagiarized a story by an Azerbaijani writer. I can't see it making it very far.

NOT MUCH MORE LIKELY:

15. SLOVAKIA- "Made in Ash"
14. BULGARIA- "Sneakers"
13. SLOVENIA- "A Trip"
12. RUSSIA- "White Tiger"
11. GEORGIA- "Keep Smiling"


These five films (including two of the three remaining Soviet republics in Europe) are pretty much on the same level as those I ranked 16 thru 20. None of them have the buzz or the critical acclaim necessary to advance to the next round.

Four of the films are about the lives of disillusioned 20-somethings in the post-Communist era. BULGARIA's "Sneakers" was a box-office hit in Bulgaria in 2011, but this story of six aimless, borderline-violent slackers (5 guys, 1 girl) escaping their problems on a trip to the seaside was described by the Hollywood Reporter as "the most irritating bunch of whining screen narcissists", despite a somewhat positive review. This angst-ridden youth drama set to a soundtrack of Bulgarian rock music is unlikely to appeal to the older-skewing Oscar committee.

SLOVENIA has also sent a road movie, this time a drama centering on three old high-school friends (straight guy, gay guy, straight girl) reuniting for a road trip through the Slovenian countryside (I did this in May! It's a great idea!). One of the guys is about to be deployed to Afghanistan, and the three have clearly grown apart since their carefree days at school. It's a low-budget film with lots of talking and though it's gotten good reviews, it's too low-key to advance here.

Also made on a low budget, SLOVAKIA's "Made in Ash" is a road movie of a completely different nature...It's a gritty drama about a young Roma woman in Slovakia seeking work and a better life across the border in Germany. As inevitably happens to young women in these sorts of movies, she ends up lured and trafficked into stripping and prostitution. Noticed have been positive but not enthusiastic, and the low budget won't help.

In a somewhat lighter vein is GEORGIA's dark comedy "Keep Smiling", skewing reality TV and beauty pageants. In the film, ten women- most in dire financial straits- compete in a televised beauty pageant (Georgia Mother 2010) to win an apartment and a desperately needed cash prize. The Hollywood Reporter describes it as "Honey Boo Boo" made by the people behind "Desperate Housewives". "Keep Smiling" looks like fun but I've heard it's a flawed film. It'll need a huge amount of support to get that coveted "out-of-nowhere" slot on the shortlist (like comedy "Everybody Famous" in 2001). That's doubtful.

Lastly, we have RUSSIA's strange fantasy "White Tiger". During World War II, an injured Russian soldier is nearly killed in battle. He miraculously heals from his wounds within days but suffers from amnesia and claims an ability to communicate with machines, particularly the tanks on the battlefield. Just like the story of Moby Dick, the soldier becomes obsessed with defeating one particular German tank. Filmed in the old-school Soviet-style, the film is said to be "very Russian", meaning abstract and philosophical. The one other film I've seen by director Karen Shakhnazarov leads me to believe his films are an acquired taste. Despite some positive notices, the film has won no awards. My friend that saw it fell asleep. Maybe next year for Russia.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:
10. ALBANIA- "Pharmakon"
9. BOSNIA- "Children of Sarajevo"
8. CROATIA- "Cannibal Vegetarian"
7. AZERBAIJAN- "Buta"
6. HUNGARY- "Just the Wind"

In a weak Eastern European field, these five films are likely to finish in the Top Half, but probably won't threaten for the shortlist.

ALBANIA's "Pharmakon" was the only Albanian film eligible, which made choosing the national submission rather easy. I can't find a single review online, but this film about a love triangle between a cruel, domineering father, his son who has recently returned from abroad, and a nurse working in the father's clinic looks very interesting. Despite its small film industry, Albania has sent good films in the past (particularly "Alive", but also "East West East" and "Slogans") which gives me confidence that it's a decent movie, although likely not an Oscar contender.

AZERBAIJAN has returned to the competition with "Buta", a culturally rich film (I saw the trailer...there also appear to be no reviews online) about a little boy living in a remote village with his grandma, and his friendship with an old man. Turns out this old man used to court his grandmother in their youth, decades before. "Buta" is both the little boy's name and a style of carpet made in the village. Oscar loves stories about old people and children ("Kolya", "Central Station", "The Thief") or just children ("Children of Heaven", "Vitus", "The Day My Parents Went On Vacation") but I've heard this is more of a children's film than one for adults, and it has zero buzz...Azerbaijan is traditionally not a contender in this category.

Moving on to BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, we have "Children of Sarajevo", the story of a brother and sister fifteen years after they were orphaned in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The siblings are now 21 and 14, and the older sister, now sporting an Islamic headscarf, is struggling to support the family and keep her younger brother from juvenile deliquency in 2012 Sarajevo. The film is said to be a good one and it won an award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, but I think it's too low-key and quiet to advance.

CROATIA's "Cannibal Vegetarian" is said to be one of the most disturbing films in this year's competition. "Vegetarian" is about an unscrupulous gynecologist/surgeon, who performs abortions when the local mafia-owned prostitutes get pregnant. After botching an operation, he is ordered to perform an abortion on a woman who's already eight months along. A scene of animal cruelty is said to be particularly disturbing. The movie is said to be disturbing and depressing, but also fast-paced...one of those Eastern European films that makes you question whether life has any meaning. The larger committee will hate it, and I don't believe the film has what it takes to get "saved".

HUNGARY won the Silver Bear in Berlin for "Just the Wind", the story of a Roma family eking out a living against the backdrop of a series of racial murders targeting the Roma community. Despite its award in Berlin and generally positive reviews, "Just the Wind" is just the sort of slow, minimalist film with little dialogue that the Academy rarely chooses. Not everyone likes it, so it's probably out of luck here.

DARK HORSES:
5. MACEDONIA- "The Third Half"
4. SERBIA- "When Day Breaks"
3. POLAND- "80 Million"

Important events in the 20th century histories of Poland and the former Yugoslavia form the plotlines of these three dramas.

If Oscars were given based on plots, then SERBIA's "When Day Breaks" would probably win this year, since it combines virtually all of Oscar's favorite themes (World War II!! Musical Composers!! Jews!!) in one film. In this Goran Paskaljevic film, a 70-year old Orthodox Serbian professor discovers that his real parents were Jewish deportees who gave him away to neighbors in order to save him from the Nazis during WWII. He finds that his father was a composer in pre-WWII Yugoslavia and sets out to have his last unfinished symphony performed. It's total Oscar bait, but reviews have been decidedly mixed in the West leading me to believe that it's a long shot for the shortlist. I'll see it in January when it premieres here in Washington, DC and make up my own mind.

POLAND's "80 Million" focuses not on World War II but on the Solidarity movement against Communism in the 1980s. It's an exciting, commercial thriller that sounds like a Hollywood heist film. In the film, a series of Solidarity (an anti-Communist labor group that helped overthrown Communist rule in Poland) activists race against the clock to save the group's assets from being seized by the Polish Communist government in 1981. They accomplish this by staging a daring bank robbery of some sort. This is the sort of light and entertaining but still serious movie that the Academy sometimes goes for. Perhaps it's a bit too commercial? We'll see....

A bigger long-shot is MACEDONIA's controversial "The Third Half", about a football (soccer) team in 1940s Macedonia, coached by a German Jew in what was then a region of Yugoslavia occupied by Nazi-allied Bulgaria. Bulgaria has strongly protested that the film incorrectly shows Bulgarians deporting Jews. The Macedonians say this indeed happened and that thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps in this way. The Oscar committee will likely know little or nothing about the controversy so that won't affect the film's chances in any way. The film hasn't made much of a blip outside of the Balkans. In its favor is its WWII theme and its exciting story. It also has the highest IMDB rating of all 71 films worldwide (although I'd say the voting looks SUSPICIOUSLY high....may be some vote stuffing involved). All in all, the politics and subject matter are probably a bit too obscure for the Oscar committee and I've heard that the mishmash of languages (Macedonian, Bulgarian, German, Serbian) makes it difficult for Westerners to figure out who's who....But who knows?

FRONT-RUNNERS:
2. ROMANIA- "Beyond the Hills"
1. CZECH REPUBLIC- "In the Shadow"

Even though there are 20 films in the running, I'm not really sure if either of these two films will end up making the shortlist!

Most people are certainly saying that ROMANIA's "Beyond the Hills"- winner of Best Actress and Best Screenplay at Cannes 2012- is one of the favorites. However, this two-and-a-half hour movie about two women, a convent, lesbianism (maybe?) and an exorcism (maybe?) is definitely too weird to make it out of the larger committee. In the film, a Romanian woman living in Germany journeys to a remote convent in rural Romania to meet the best friend from her youth. The woman demands that her friend return with her to the West. Her friend insists she will stay in the convent. From there, things go a bit haywire. Some say that the Oscars wouldn't ignore Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days") a second time, but "4 Months" was a much more popular film that "Hills". Reviews have been positive but not as strong as "4 Months", and the film earned only a single nomination (and no wins) at the European Film Awards (for Screenplay; it lost to a Danish film). It's entirely possible that the elite committee will "save" Mungiu in order to avoid a second snub. Indeed, that is "Hills" only chance....I think in the end, they're going to miss out.

That brings us to the CZECH REPUBLIC. The Czechs used to be a major power in this category, although they've only been nominated once in the past decade (for "Zelary", which I never got round to seeing). This year's nominee- "In the Shadow"- hasn't gotten much attention on the film festival circuit but it has gotten great reviews from those who have seen it, and it features a number of the themes that this category likes best. Shot in gorgeous film noir, this complicated mystery-thriller focuses on a routine burglary in 1953 Prague that proves to be part of a major conspiracy, leading to "show trials" in which many Czechoslovakians ending up being executed. Featuring strong acting performances and themes revolving around anti-Semitism, Communism, morality and all the big themes that Hollywood likes. "Shadow" has got a definite shot.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21
Number of countries participating this year: 20

Number of countries opting out: Only grouchy BELARUS is sitting out this year and that’s no surprise considering they haven’t sent a movie since President Lukashenko came to power in 1996. Tiny MONTENEGRO, now the smallest nation in Eastern Europe, considered sending a film for the first time (http://www.pobjeda.me/2012/09/01/crna-gora-i-dalje-bez-izbora-kandidata-za-oskara/) but decided against it since the only film that met the screening requirements (“Local Vampire”) was a lowbrow comedy with little critical appeal. KOSOVO and MOLDOVA are the only other Eastern European countries which have never entered the race.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Probably only four, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them missed it. It should be noted that in the past four years, these countries have only managed two shortlist spots (for which only “In Darkness” was nominated)

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15 primary languages. Albanian, Armenian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian (Georgia, Lithuania), Hungarian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian (Armenia, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine), Serbo-Croatian (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia), Slovak and Slovene. The Armenian nominee appears to be equal-parts bilingual. You’ll also hear quite a bit of German in entries from Czech Republic, Macedonia and Slovakia.
The films from Macedonia and Ukraine are also multi-lingual this year….. Perhaps most surprising is that Lithuania sent a film in Georgian, which is not spoken anywhere near the country.

Highest profile film: Romania’s “Beyond the Hills” easily has the most buzz since it’s the first feature directed by Cristian Mungiu since “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”, Mungiu’s snub in 2008 is rumored to have prompted the creation of an “elite committee” to assist in selecting the the Oscar shortlist. “Beyond the Hills” won Best Actress and Best Screenplay at Cannes 2012. As usual, there are quite a few obscure films on the list. I can’t find a single online review for three of them.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Probably the Czech Republic’s under-the-radar thriller.  

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Estonia’s meandering black comedy “Mushrooming”.

Number of Comedies: Two, from Estonia and Georgia.

Number of Animated Films or Horror Films: None.

Number of Documentaries: One, a documentary short from Lithuania.

Oscar History: Nobody’s been nominated before, but seven of the twenty directors have been in the race before.

Goran Paskaljevic has had one of his films submitted for an Oscar for the fourth time after “Special Treatment” (1980), “Time of Miracles” (1990), “The Powder Keg” (a.k.a. “Cabaret Balkan; 1998) and “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” (2005), alternately representing Serbia and unified Yugoslavia.
Branko Schmidt of Croatia (“Queen of the Night”, “Vukovar: The Way Home”) and Karen Shakhnazarov of Russia (“Ward No. 6”, “Zero City”) are each in the race for the third time.
Aida Begic (Bosnia, “Snow”), Benedek Fliegauf (Hungary, “Forest”), Darko Mitrevski (Macedonia, “Goodbye 20th Century) and Cristian Mungiu (Romania, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) are in the race for a second time.

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

Number of Female Directors: Four ladies are in the running- Aida Begic (Bosnia), Nataliya Belyauskene (Armenia), Rusudan Chkonia (Georgia) and Iveta Grofova (Slovakia). Belyauskene and Grofova are the first women to represent their countries.
Oldest and Youngest Directors: Ukraine’s Russian-born Mykhailo Ilienko is 65 while Slovenia’s Nejc Gazvoda is only 28.
Familiar Faces: Though some actors are surely famous in their home countries, there are no internationally well-known faces in this crop of films. Oscar watchers may recognize the lead in Croatia’s “Cannibal Vegetarian” (Rene Bitorajac) as one of the two stars of Bosnia’s Oscar-winning “No Man’s Land” (he played the Serb soldier).
His “Cannibal Vegetarian” co-star, Bosnian actor Emir Hadžihafizbegović, is appearing in his eleventh Oscar submission (5 Bosnian ones, 4 Croatian ones, 1 Serbian one + 1 Yugoslavian one)...Is that some kind of record?

Tough Choices: In my view, the biggest snubs were for “Parada”, the gay-themed comedy from Serbia that proved to be a major hit all over the former Yugoslavia, and “The Exam”, a Cold War thriller from Hungary. Both were beaten by more artistic works.
It was a bad year for films that won their 2012 National Film Awards…”Ave” (Bulgaria), “Flower Buds” (Czech Republic), “Citadel of Sleeping Butterflies” (Lithuania), “Rose” (Poland), “Once Upon A Time There Lived A Simple Woman” (Russia) and “Archeo” (Slovenia) all won Best Picture but were ignored by their Oscar committees. Poland’s acclaimed “Rose” was a particularly shocking snub.
Also eliminated in the preliminaries: “Tadas Blinda” (Lithuania), “The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears” starring Victoria Abril (Macedonia), “The Best Intentions” (Romania), Thr Horde (Russia) and “The Confidant” (Slovakia)
Controversies and Changes: Some minor controversies….
AZERBAIJAN accused ARMENIA of plagiarizing the work of an Azerbaijani writer and “twisting” the plot so that the Armenian characters are seen as the good guys. The accusations are likely untrue as the two countries routinely fight over everything, as could be seen most recently in the Armenia boycott of Azerbaijan’s successful hosting of Eurovision 2012.
LITHUANIA’s vote had to be extended to a second round after their Oscar committee couldn’t decide. The reason wasn’t announced, but it was probably due to the fact that many preferred “Tadas Blinda”- a big-budget, box-office period movie- over the barely Lithuanian documentary short made in faraway Georgia.

Perhaps the biggest controversy came from MACEDONIA’s film “The Third Half”.  Though the selection of the well-received film was not controversial in Macedonia, it caused a huge stir in neighboring Bulgaria. Many in Bulgaria object to the portrayal in the film of Bulgarian soldiers helping to deport Jews from current-day Macedonia to concentration camps. Bulgaria, which was allied to Nazi Germany, has always maintained that it was the only Nazi ally which categorically refused to deport its Jewish population. Macedonia maintained that the film was historically accurate and several Bulgarian members of the European Parliament variously called for the film to be banned, or for Macedonia to be condemned.
SERBIA introduced a new selection format this year, requiring filmmakers to submit their films for consideration, along with a  300 euro fee. In previous years, all Serbian releases were eligible. The eventual winner, “When Day Breaks”, arranged a one-theatre release in an obscure town in order to compete, meaning that the film was virtually unknown when was is selected, beating out its main competition, hit gay-pride comedy “Parada”.
Number of countries I predicted correctly: 7- ALBANIA, ARMENIA, BOSNIA, ESTONIA, LATVIA, SLOVENIA and UKRAINE. The release dates were really what screwed me up this year. I was well aware of the strength of the Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian and Slovak candidates (see my predictions!), but thought they would be eligible next year.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve seen the nominees from Estonia and Ukraine (which you can watch yourself legally like I did at http://cinecliq.com/) but missed out on four others at this year’s EU Film Festival in Washington, DC, which was notable only for absurdly inconvenient times and schedules.
There are so many interesting films on the list this year. If I could only choose one, it would have to be Georgia’s reality TV comedy “Keep Smiling”, though I’d feel terrible missing out on the intriguing stories of “Cannibal Vegetarian”, “Pharmakon” and “Buta”.

Last year's race: I only saw five of last year’s mostly obscure list of 16 films. Eventual nominee (and probable Oscar runner-up) “In Darkness” was the best of the five (A-), with Slovakia’s “Gypsy” also very good (B+). I was less a fan of Croatia’s “72 Days” (C), Hungary’s “Turin Horse” (C-) and Slovenia’s “Silent Sonata” (C+)

Next up: the 17 films from The Americas, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.