Friday, December 20, 2013

Final Predictions

I expect the list to be finalized today, so writing this on an iPhone.

This is a really tough year....75 or 76 films (I heard one was disqualified for no subtitles) and so few locks....

Fingers crossed for my favorite film so far- The Netherlands' dark horse "Borgman"
Almost locked:
1. IRAN- "The Past"
2. DENMARK- "The Hunt"

Predicted Shortlist
3. SERBIA- "Circles"
4. SAUDI ARABIA- "Wadjda"
5. CHILE- "Gloria"
6. BELGIUM- "Broken Circle Breakdown"
7. FINLAND- "The Disciple"
8. JAPAN- "The Great Passage"
9. MEXICO- "Heli" (surprise elite committee save)

Extremely strong alternates- 
10. PALESTINE- "Omar"
11. SINGAPORE- "Ilo Ilo"
12. AUSTRALIA- "The Rocket"
13. BOSNIA- "An Episode in the Life on an Iron Picker"
14. ITALY- "The Great Beauty"
15. GERMANY- "Two Lives"
16. KAZAKHSTAN- "Shal"
17. NETHERLANDS- "Borgman"
18. HONG KONG- "The Grandmaster"

Dark horses-
19. ROMANIA- "Child's Pose"
20. SLOVENIA- "Class Enemy"
21. ISRAEL- "Bethlehem"
22. MOROCCO- "God's Horses"
23. CANADA- "Gabrielle"
24. CAMBODIA- "The Missing Picture"
25. POLAND- "Walesa"

Real long-shots
26. HUNGARY- "The Notebook"
27. SPAIN- "15 Years and a Day"
28. PHILIPPINES- "Transit"
29. GEORGIA- "In Bloom"
30. CZECH REP.- "The Don Juans"
31. LUXEMBOURG- "Blind Spot"
32. ALBANIA- "Agon"
33. ICELAND- "Of Horses and Men"
34. CROATIA- "Halima's Path"

Everyone else (including Brazil and France)? Better luck next year 

FRANCE- "Renoir"

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2014- Western Europe (19 Films)

I think the final shortlist will be announced later this week so I'm publishing the Western Europeans only half-finished.....I'll do my list of final predictions tomorrow and try to fill in the rest of this chart later on.

If there's any justice, "Borgman" (Netherlands) will be nominated. It's probably the best film I saw this year. I hope the elite committee will "save" it, but I'm pessimistic about its chances. Great filmmaking is simply not enough to win an Oscar with these voters.

HELL NO:
19. GREECE- "Boy Eating the Bird's Food"
18. ESTONIA- "Free Range"
 
Better luck next year for these two countries from the periphery of Western Europe....Both "Boy Eating the Bird's Food" from GREECE and "Free Range" from ESTONIA are surreal, borderline-experimental films...definitely not what Oscar goes for. On top of that, neither film is supposed to be very good. Reviews for "Bird's Food" (which did win Best Greek Film at Thessaloniki and the Hellenic Film Awards), about a 20-year old so hungry from the economic crisis that he resorts to eating both his bird's food and his own semen (sure to disturb the Oscar committee), have been weak outside of Greece. "Free Range", by surrealist (and weird) director Veiko Ounpuu is some kind of nonsense about a man whose life falls apart after he writes a film review of "The Tree of Life". Forget it.

NO CHANCE:
17. SWEDEN- "Eat Sleep Die"
16. NORWAY- "I Am Yours"
15. AUSTRIA- "The Wall"
14. PORTUGAL- "Lines of Wellington"

SWEDEN and NORWAY have both selected debut features by female directors, about Muslim immigrants to Scandinavia. "Eat Sleep Die" won Best Picture at last year's Guldbagge Awards for its story of a Bosniak girl who loses her job. This minimalist, realist, hand-held film has gotten mixed reviews. It's supposed to be an average, yet not particularly involving film. "I Am Yours", about a Pakistani-Norwegian divorcee spurned by her traditional family for her cavalier attitude towards family and relationships. Once again, reviews have simply not been strong enough to compete here.

AUSTRIA's "The Wall" is an adaptation of "unfilmable" novel "Die Wand". It's the story of a 30-something woman in Austria who goes on a weekend vacation with friends to a rural mountain lodge. While her friends are away in town, a mysterious force field descends upon the area, trapping her (along with some animals) in an area perhaps a few square miles (?) with a host of animals. All life outside "the wall" appears to be frozen in time, and (presumably) dead. The problem is that the novel really is "unfilmable". Much of the action is narrated by talented actress Martina Gedrick but her struggle to survive by working the land, while realistic, is not exciting (though the conclusion is riveting). Set in 1810, PORTUGAL's historical drama "Lines of Wellington" is a dusty, overlong historical drama- typical of Portuguese Oscar submissions. "Wellington" may look pretty but its many characters and obscure history (a conflict between France and combined UK-Portugal forces) will doom it to failure, like all of Portugal's previous submissions.

Lots of interesting ideas here, but no chance at an Oscar.

UNLIKELY:
13. SWITZERLAND- "More Than Honey"
12. FRANCE- "Renoir"
11. UNITED KINGDOM- "Metro Manila"
10. TURKEY- "Butterfly's Dream"

All four of these films have their pluses and minuses, but lack the gravitas to make the next round.

FRANCE is usually a front-runner and biopic "Renoir" is a sumptuous period drama about the last days of the acclaimed painter, and his relationship with his son (the soon-to-be great director Jean Renoir) and his artistic muse (a teenaged nude model) in the countryside during WWI. It's all very pretty, but it's also extremely boring. Although it has its admirers, too many people fall asleep for France to get nominated this year. Across the Channel, the UNITED KINGDOM has sent a Tagalog-language film made in the Philippines. An impoverished rural family emigrates to the city to seek a better life, but the family unwittingly becomes involved in crime and official corruption. This gritty, low-budget effort is said to be solid, but "gritty" rarely succeeds here.

SWITZERLAND has selected a documentary, which never bodes well with Oscar. While true that "Waltz with Bashir" and "Pina" did advance to the next round, these were not straightforward documentary films (I disliked both). "More Than Honey" is a technologically impressive documentary- seeing the bees work, dance and fly so close-up is eye-opening. It's about the declining numbers of honeybees, and the potentially devastating impact on global food production if they stop pollinating flowers and crops. However, I think the documentary format will work against it; some may think it should run in the Documentary category instead. And there's the obscure film from TURKEY- "The Butterfly's Dream". It's a period drama about two Turkish poets (both ill with tuberculosis) trying to woo the same girl through poetry (contrary to some reports on the Internet, it is NOT a gay story about two poets in love with each other). Though popular in Turkey, the film has not been widely seen internationally. The trailer looks gorgeous- like a Spanish or Italian festival film, but I imagine that two-hours-plus of subtitled poetry is not likely to translate well.

DARK HORSES:
9. LUXEMBOURG- "Blind Spot"
8. SPAIN- "15 Years And a Day"
7. ICELAND- "Of Horses and Men"

LUXEMBOURG and SPAIN have chosen pretty standard genre pics. The tiny Grand Duchy has entered the race for the first time in four years with local hit "Blind Spot", a police mystery-thriller (aka un policier) about a closeted gay cop (from the country which now has the world's first openly gay male Prime Minister) trying to solve his brother's murder. It's all very good (you can watch it on iTunes) and filled with twists, but in the United States, it would be a standard hit policier  and not an Oscar nominee. The Spaniards have likewise chosen a cookie-cutter "coming-of-age-drama" about a boy sent to live with his grandfather after causing trouble at school. Reviews haven't been great...most say the script is weak and a bit clichéd....But this is the sort of film that the Large Committee has gone before. They love kids + old people....Still, with 76 films, I don't hold out much hope.

As for ICELAND, they've gone more original. It's the story of a small Icelandic town that relies on horse breeding. It's a quirky, tragicomic film, with stories partially told from the point of view of horses. Critics praise the filmmaking (the horse "actors" are particularly praised) but it's definitely an oddball film. It may place well in the rankings, but probably won't net Iceland a shortlist spot for the second year in a row. Still, definitely I will look for at Fests in 2014.

COMPETITIVE:
6. GERMANY- "Two Lives"
5. NETHERLANDS- "Borgman"
4. BELGIUM- "The Broken Circle Breakdown"

3. ITALY- "The Great Beauty" 



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
FRONT-RUNNERS:
2. FINLAND- "The Disciple"
1. DENMARK- "The Hunt"

I see these two Scandinavian dramas (both touching on child abuse) as the Western European front-runners. DENMARK's acclaimed child abuse drama "The Hunt" is close to a lock. It's probably the best-reviewed Western European film of the year (certainly the best-reviewed of this mixed lot). Over the past year and a half (it debuted at Cannes 2012), it's gotten a solid reputation on the film festival circuit, and it's exactly the sort of film Oscar goes for (a morality tale). This drama about a lie about child abuse that turns a man's life upside down is (along with "The Past") one of the two front-runners to win the Oscar next year.

FINLAND is much more a gamble. Unlike much-loved Denmark, the Finns have only been nominated once before (for the undeserving "Man Without A Past"). "The Disciple" is a Swedish-language family drama about a domineering father living with his wife, son and young daughter at a remote lighthouse station. He begrudgingly agrees to briefly house an teenage apprentice. The two boys strike up a friendship and the tyrant of a father begins to favor the apprentice over his own son. Although the film hasn't been as strongly reviewed as, say, "The Great Beauty", it is universally said to be a well-photographer, solid story. Some people love it, others like it. It should receive solid scores across the board, making it a big possibility with the big committee. If it can't make The Top Six however, it likely will fail with the elite committee, looking for more arty/acclaimed works.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15. Three films are in German (Austria, Germany and Switzerland), two are in Dutch (Belgium, Netherlands) and two are in Swedish (Finland, Sweden). Theres one each in Danish, Estonian, French, Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Luxembourgish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Tagalog (UK) and Turkish.  The Portuguese submission is an unusual mishmash of languages.

Highest profile film: Denmark's The Hunt which has been doing the film festival circuit since Cannes 2012.  

Number of Western European countries participating this year: 19, including Estonia and Turkey.  

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21.  

Number of countries opting out: Only Greenland and Ireland, which did not have any foreign-language fiction feature films eligible.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: A weak field this year...Maybe five.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I got six......Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and- big surprise- also the UK. I came close with Finland, and probably would have gotten France but I skipped them this year.  

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from Austria (B-), France (C), Luxembourg (B), Netherlands (A+) and Switzerland (B+). I'm most excited to frontrunner The Hunt" from Denmark. I have the DVD and will watch before Christmas.

Feature Debuts: 6 films are feature debuts (Austria, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden).  

Number of Comedies: I would say none, although the Netherlands and Sweden are described by some as black comedies.  

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: One documentary (Switzerland) and one sort-of-horror film (Netherlands).

Oscar History: Markus Imhoof of Switzerland was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar way back in 1982 for "The Boat is Full" while Sean Ellis of the UK was nominated for Best Short Film in 2006 for "Cashback".

In addition to Imhoof (“The Boat is Full”, and also “Der Berg”), four other directors have been selected by their countries before: Veiko Õunpuu  (“The Temptation of St. Tony”, Estonia), Felix Van Groeningen (Belgium, “The Misfortunates”), Alex van Warmerdam (Netherlands, “The Northeners”) and Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark, “The Celebration”).

Every country has been nominated for an Oscar at least once except Estonia, Luxembourg, Portugal and Turkey.

Number of Female Directors: 5 out of 19- namely Ulrika Bengts (Finland), Iram Haq (Norway), Gabriele Pichler (Sweden) and Gracia Querejeta (Spain), plus Chilean-born widow Valeria Sarmiento (Portugal), who completed "Lines of Wellington" after her husband Raoul Ruiz died during pre-production.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 72-year old Markus Imhoof of Switzerland is the oldest Western European candidate this year, while 33-year old debut director Gabriele Pichler is the youngest.

Familiar Faces: Portugal's all-star "Lines of Wellington" features a huge number of Eurocentric celebrities in supporting roles, including Almodovar muse Marisa Paredes  (Spain), Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert (France), Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Perez (sort of France) plus American actor John Malkovich.

The most familiar face in a leading role this year is Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen ("The Hunt"), known to arthouse audiences for Oscar nominees "A Royal Affair" and "After the Wedding", as well as to mainstream American audiences for "Casino Royale" and the "Hannibal" TV series. Runner-ups include 2-time Norwegian Oscar nominee Liv Ullmann who co-stars in the German submission "Two Lives", and Maribel Verdu, who I think plays the Mom in Spain's "15 Years and a Day".

Also: German actress Martina Gedrick is the one-woman star of "The Wall" and should be familiar to Foreign Oscar watchers due to her lead roles in "The Lives of Others" and "Der Baader Meinhof Komplex". "Two Lives" lead actress Juliane Kohler starred in Oscar winner "Nowhere in Africa". 88-year old Michel Bouquet plays the title role in "Renoir" and has been a prolific stage/screen actor since the 1960s. Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson of Iceland co-stars in his seventh Oscar submission since 1996. American actor John Hurt narrates the English version of "More Than Honey" (though not the foreign-language version)

Controversies and Changes The biggest controversy was probably the decision by the producers of Cannes winner "Blue is the Warmest Color" not to release their film in French cinemas a few days earlier to compete for an Oscar. The producers claimed the release date rules were stupid. So was their decision to prevent "Blue" from repping France. In the past French producers have done a one-cinema qualifying release ("Joyeux Noel").

Omissions: I'd say the highest-profile omission was Francois Ozon's "In the House", from France. Also Austria's entire "Paradise" trilogy by Ulrich Seidl, especially sex tourism frontrunner "Paradise: Love"....Denmark's Indonesian-language documentary "The Act of Killing" (shortlisted for Best Documentary), Estonia's "A Lady in Paris" (starring Jeanne Moreau), Norway's big-budget thriller "Pioneer" (co-starring "American Beauty"'s Wes Bentley), Spain's bizarre love story "Cannibal" and Switzerland's mother-gay-son-dramedy "Rosie".

Last year's race: The Western Europeans hoggedsix of the nine spots on the shortlist last year (Austria, Denmark, France, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland). My favorite was Les Intouchables from France (A-, a fine film, even if it is a mainstream comedy) followed by the hauntingBlancanieves (B+, Spain). I also saw eventual winner Amour (B), nominees A Royal Affair (B+) and Kon-Tiki (B), plus the films from Belgium (B+), Estonia (D), Germany (C+), Greece (B-), Iceland (B-), Sweden (B) and Switzerland (B-).

Next up: Final predictions for the 9-film shortlist

Thursday, December 12, 2013

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS 2014- Asia (19 Films)

Year after year, my favorite Oscar films usually come from Asia, even though they seldom get nominated (none on the 9-film shortlist last year), though they do win occasionally ("Crouching Tiger" in 2001, "Departures" in 2009 and "A Separation" in 2012).

Most of these 19 films- ranging from Iran in the West to New Zealand in the Southeast- are out of luck....but they've got some very strong contenders in the mix and will definitely nab at least one or two spots on the list. Among the highlights are the first Pakistani film in contention in 50 years, two bloody horror movies from East Asia, and the return of Oscar winner of Asghar Farhadi.

BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR:
19. THAILAND- "Countdown"
18. NEPAL- "Soongava"
17. INDIA- "The Good Road"
16. TAIWAN- "Soul"
15. INDONESIA- "Sang Kiai"

While I congratulate them for sending something different from the usual epics and arthouse flicks, Oscar was never likely to go for a foreign horror movie, so TAIWAN and THAILAND are out of luck. TAIWAN's "Soul" sounded fascinating. A man collapses at work and is sent to stay with his father in the rural mountains of Taiwan. As soon as his sister worries out loud that her brother is acting "strange", the body count starts to mount and the man's elderly father tries to cover up the crimes. The man replies in an otherworldly voice that "this body was empty....so I moved in". It's all very creepy and interesting, but ends up being a little too mysterious and whimsical for its own good. THAILAND's teen horror "Countdown" is loud, violent and obnoxious, and is shot like a music video. In the film, three Thai teens in New York are terrorized by a mysterious drug dealer named Jesus to repent for their secret sins on New Year's. It's all a lot of fun, but broken fingers, pulled-out teeth and over-the-top acting make this the "anti-Oscar".


INDIA and NEPAL are also out of their league this year. NEPAL returns to the Oscar race for the first time since 2006 with lesbian dance drama "Soongava: Dance of the Orchids", about a pair of lovers grappling with family and societal pressure to break up their relationship. It's said to be good but not more than that, and it's clearly a low-budget film. It's destined to be on the LGBT circuit. India was nearly guaranteed an Oscar nod for "The Lunchbox", but they selected Gujarati road movie "The Good Road" instead. The state of Gujarati has its own language and its own small film industry, and "Road" is said to be above and beyond the standard of regional Indian cinema. However, reviews have been tepid for this tale of three intersecting stories on the road in rural Gujarat, the most notable of which is a lost 9-year old girl who becomes trapped in a brothel.  

As for INDONESIA, "Sang Kiai" (aka "The Clerics") is a large-scale production highlighting peaceful Islamic resistance to the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, when they kicked out the Dutch and outdid the European colonialists in term of oppression and brutality. However, the film has barely been seen outside of Indonesia (not an Oscar power....), has zero buzz and I imagine the religious meaning and the political history will be too obscure for Hollywood voters. It looks pretty and well-made, but melodramatic.

HIGHLY UNLIKELY:
14. PAKISTAN- "Zinda Bhaag"
13. AFGHANISTAN- "Wajma: An Afghan Love Story"
12. CHINA- "Back to 1942"
11. NEW ZEALAND- "White Lies"

All four of these countries have chosen interesting films, but they’ve mostly been absent at film festivals, and reviews simply aren’t strong enough to advance this year. The only major international award between them is a Best Screenplay Award at Sundance 2013 for the Afghan film.
 
I’m excited that AFGHANISTAN (which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film last year) and PAKISTAN (which won Best Documentary Short in 2012) are back, and their films are near the top of my list to look for in 2013.PAKISTAN has returned for the first time since 1963 with “Zinda Bhaag” a comedy-drama about three enterprising Pakistanis who seek to illegally emigrate to the West via a shady broker. Things gradually get darker as their dreams seem less and less likely to come true. “Zinda Bhaag” is said to be one of the best films to come out of Pakistan recently, but I think it’s likely to miss the mark, and its Bollywood-style song and dance numbers are said to detract from the plot for Western viewers.AFGHANISTAN has chosen “Wajma: An Afghan Love Story” (not to be confused with “Wadjda” or “Walesa”….jeez….), the story of a modern young Afghan woman whose life is destroyed when she becomes pregnant by her boyfriend. As serious as this issue is in the West, it is a matter of life or death in Afghanistan where honor killings, forced marriage and overseas abortion are all part of the plot. Sundance award notwithstanding, it’s said to be a simple film and won’t be able to stand out of the crowd.
An unwanted pregnancy also plagues one of the three lead characters in the female-centered “White Lies”, a rare Maori-language film fromNEW ZEALAND, set during the colonial era. In the film, a Maori medicine woman whose practices have been banned by the British is asked to secretly help terminate the unwanted pregnancy of a wealthy white settler woman. It supposed to be a fascinating cultural study, but a bit more Masterpiece Theatre than Oscary…
 
Lastly in this category, we have CHINA’s “Back to 1942”, the polar opposite of these three quiet underdogs from Afghanistan, New Zealand and Pakistan. Said to cost $US35 million dollars and co-starring two Oscar-winning Hollywood actors (Adrian Brody + Tim Robbins) in small, supporting roles, this period drama about a famine that struck Central China in the middle of World War II is anything but quiet. Featuring Japanese raids, political intrigue and a huge cast of extras, this is the story of two families- one wealthy, one poor- who flee their village together to flee both poor harvests and the advancing Japanese. Though the cinematography is impressive, it’s also not a particularly good movie. Reviews have mostly been poor outside of Chinese-speaking territories by critics who note that it manages to be cold despite the emotional subject matter.

 MIDDLE OF THE PACK-

10. SOUTH KOREA- "Juvenile Offender"
9. BANGLADESH- "Television"
8. KAZAKHSTAN- "The Old Man"
7. CAMBODIA- "The Missing Picture"

I don't expect any of these four films to have a shot either, but they'll place higher than the previous nine. Cambodia's autobiographical documentary has a tiny chance with the elite committee, but odds are against them.

BANGLADESH's comedy "Television" is probably the country's strongest Oscar entry yet, and is the biggest Bangladeshi on the film festival circuit since "The Clay Bird" (whose director was tragically killed in 2011). "Television" closed the 2012 Busan Film Festival and got a Best Picture nomination at this year's Asia-Pacific Screen Awards (the first time a Bangladeshi film was nominated for anything). It's a satire about a rural village whose obnoxious village headman has forbidden T.V. on dubious religious grounds. It's a crowd-pleaser but unlikely to advance (Variety refers to its production values as "down-to-earth", and notes it runs out of gas in the end). Never-nominated SOUTH KOREA, on the other hand, has their weakest candidate in years. AMPAS has consistently ignored great Korean films like "Mother", "Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring" and "King and the Clown", so I can't really see them choosing unheralded melodrama "Juvenile Offender", about a 15-year old juvenile delinquent who is reunited with the teenaged mother who abandoned him at birth. It's not a bad film, but it's not much more than a soap opera, and not up Korea's high standard Oscar submissions.
 
I had high hopes for Ermek Tursunov's "The Old Man" (aka "Shal") from KAZAKHSTAN. Tursunov directed the brilliant, beautiful wordless "Kelin" which shocked everyone by making the Final 9 in 2009/2010. It somehow failed to make the Top Five (how "Milk of Sorrow" beat it, I'll never understand) but it established Tursunov as a director to watch. "The Old Man", loosely based on Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" is about an old Kazakh shepherd and a perilous journey through fog and snow (encountering scary wolves and bandits). "The Old Man" could technically surprise like "Kelin", but it looks like an old-fashioned Soviet film (perhaps thematically appropriate, but the chief charm of "Kelin" was that it looked like a painting). Lastly, there's CAMBODIA's stirring documentary "The Missing Picture"...It's an impressive autobiographical documentary of Cambodia's greatest modern director- Rithy Panh- who was imprisoned with his family in a Khmer Rouge concentration camp at the age of 13. Most of his family was murdered. As the title implies, films of that era mostly do not exist, so Panh uses (French) narration and clay figures to recreate his childhood. It's a very special film, though not necessarily an easy watch. Before the Feature Documentary shortlist came out, I thought "Picture" might have a chance with the elite committee, but "Picture" failed to make the Top Fifteen, so I'm pessimistic. Still, a film worth watching.
 
DARK HORSES-
 
 
6. PHILIPPINES- "Transit"
5. HONG KONG- "The Grandmaster"
4. SINGAPORE- "Ilo Ilo"

These three dark horses will likely place very well in the 76-nation race, and they all have strong elements in their favor.

HONG KONG's "The Grandmaster" is a sort of arthouse "Crouching Tiger"-cum- all-star martial-arts biopic by Wong Kar-wai. Wong is beloved by some (though not all), and the film is a box-office success. More helpful in the Oscar race are the Weinstein Brothers, who are backing the film. It's the biography of Ip Man (not to be confused with the recent Donnie Yen "Ip Man" series of films, also from Hong Kong), the martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee and helped popularize kung fu worldwide. Wong and his distributors did something very interesting this year. AMPAS rules state that the version of the film must be the same version that is screened in local cinemas. Wong released a Hong Kong version, that re-edited the film so that it would appeal more to Western audiences and released that second version in Hong Kong theatres for an Oscar qualifying run. Though some say the longer, Chinese version is a better film, the shorter, sleeker "Western" version is said to be less complicated, less challenging and more appealing to audiences unfamiliar with history. Possibly a very smart move. Other than "Crouching Tiger" (and a nomination for China's "Hero" two years later), Oscar traditionally ignores martial arts film, even when they're very good (i.e. "Curse of the Golden Flower") so I think "Grandmaster" may just miss the cut.
 
THE PHILIPPINES "Transit" is possibly the best reviewed of the "real" Asian nominees (i.e. not counting "The Past"). "Transit" takes place in Israel, where thousands of Filipinos work as manual laborers, nannys and engineers. Recent laws ordered the deportations of many Israeli-born Filipino children, including those (like the boy and girl in the film) who speak Hebrew and have few ties to the Philippines. Word of mouth is very positive, but the Philippines has never been nominated yet, and this is still at its heart a small, independent film. Won't make the cut.

I give better odds to "Ilo Ilo" (Cannes 2013) from SINGAPORE. The film, set during the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, centers on the relationship of an upper-middle-class Singapore family with their Filipina nanny....The spoiled 8-year old son initially bullies the new nanny....the working mother is jealous of the burdgeoning relationship between her son and his surrogate mother....the father is hiding the fact that he lost his job....It's been well-reviewed and reportedly stays on the right side of sentimental without being schmaltzy. This is key to winning over the large committee, which also tends to like foreign films with a lot of English dialogue (like the streets of Singapore, the film is multi-lingual, in a code-switching mixture of Hokkien, Mandarin, English and Tagalog). Australia or Singapore (probably not both) have a shot at grabbing a third Asian slot on the list.

FRONT RUNNERS-



3. AUSTRALIA- "The Rocket"
2. JAPAN- "The Great Passage"


1. IRAN- "The Past"



Okay....So we all know that French film "The Past", representing IRAN, is one of the favorites to win the award this year. Directed by Oscar winning director Asghar Farhadi, starring Oscar nominee Berenice Bejo, lauded by critics and celebrated by Internet "buzz", this psychological drama about a Persian man who goes to France to obtain a divorce from his wife (Bejo) is one of the front-runners. I agree. It's on the shortlist.

Can one-time Oscar superpower Japan or English-speaking Australia join Farhadi on the shortlist? Maybe. JAPAN's relatively obscure "The Great Passage" beat overwhelming favorite "Like Father, Like Son" to represent Japan. "Passage" is a comedy-drama about a shy, introverted researcher who is suddenly put in charge of the publication of a new dictionary. The man's love for the written word (and his awkwardness with speaking) and his dedication to the project help him to gain the confidence to woo a pretty neighbor. Look at the trailer and you'll immediately be reminded of Japan's last win- the wonderful "Departures". The Japanese do these sort of emotional, funny, light dramas very well (they would be nominated more often and they're a potential dark horse with the large committee.

AUSTRALIA's Sundance Film Festival favorite "The Rocket" is also strong. Oscar likes uplifting, sentimental stories, they like small children and they like films with a strong cultural slant (though not lately....). "The Rocket" is about one of a pair of twin boys (the other died at birth) who is believed to be cursed due to a local superstition regarding twins. His impoverished family is ordered relocated due to government construction of a dam (which is why this Lao-language film was banned in Laos!). This is very much a heartwarming story which has been a real audience pleaser....The little Lao boy will be competing directly with the little Singaporean boy in "Ilo Ilo" for one of the final slots on the list.
 
Now, the statistics:
 
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Three films are mostly in Mandarin Chinese (China, Hong Kong and Taiwan) and oddly two are in French (Cambodia and Iran). There’s one film each in Bengali, Dari, Hokkien Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Tagalog and Thai, plus the first-ever Oscar submissions ever in Gujarati (India), Lao (Australia), Maori (New Zealand) and Punjabi (Pakistan). The Filipino, Kazakhstani and Singaporean entries are quite multi-lingual.
 
Highest profile film: Asghar Farhadi’s France-based “The Past” certainly has the most buzz, though Wong Kar-wai’s all-star “The Grandmaster” has surely been seen by more people.
 
Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year: 19, including Australia, Iran and New Zealand
 
Number of countries that have participated in the past: 27.
 
Number of countries opting out: 8. Bhutan and Fiji have only ever sent films once each, and Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan have each sent films only twice. That means the most notable absences are Oscar nominee VIETNAM (nominated in 1994), which launched an open call for submissions, but only received one (“Blood Letter”) which did not meet eligibility requirements, and KYRGYZSTAN, which usually sends some great films and which is about to release its most expensive epic film yet, the $1.5 million “Kurmandjan Datka- Queen of the Mountains”. So, hopefully we’ll see them both back next year.
 
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Hmmm…..Maybe 5?
 
Number of countries I predicted correctly: I did very well, selecting 9 out of 19- Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, New Zealand and Singapore, and came close with Kazakhstan. Like everyone else, I was shocked by India’s choice , but even more so by Iran’s, which I assumed was too risqué for the Islamic government. 
 
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the films from Cambodia (B+), China (C+), Taiwan (B) and Thailand (B), but given the chance to see one more, I’d probably choose Afghanistan’s intriguing “Wajma: An Afghan Love Story”.
 
Feature Debuts: 6 films are feature debuts (Australia, India, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand)
 
Number of Comedies: Two-and-a-half….BANGLADESH’s village satire “Television”  and PAKISTAN’s serious immigration comedy “Zinda Bhaag”, plus romatic dramedy “The Great Passage” from JAPAN
 
Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: One documentary- CAMBODIA’s stirring documentary “The Missing Picture”, and two Asian horror films, THAILAND’s bizarre finger-snapping “Countdown” and TAIWAN’s more cerebral demonic “Soul”.
 
Oscar History:   Asghar Farhadi won the first-ever Oscar for Iran two years ago and he’s back again with “The Past”. He also likely came close to a shortlist spot for “About Elly”.
 
Five other directors have made it to this stage before- Mostofa Sarwar Farooki (Bangladesh; “Third Person Singular Number”), Feng Xiaogang (China, “The Banquet” for Hong Kong, “Aftershock” for China) Rithy Panh (Cambodia; “The Rice People”), Ermek Tursunov (Kazakhstan, “Kelin”) and Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong, “In the Mood for Love”).
 
Number of Female Directors: Two women - Hannah Espia for the Philippines (“Transit), and Dana Rotberg, a Mexican director who resides in New Zealand (“White Lies”).  Surprisingly enough, the Pakistani film has a female co-director from archrival India, namely Meenu Gaur, who moved to Pakistan in 2010.
 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Wong Kar-wai, arguably the most famous director in contention, is the oldest, although he’s only 57. Singapore’s Anthony Chen is only 29....Not sure how old Hannah Espia is.....

Familiar Faces:  The Asian countries are a star-studded lot. There couldn’t be more familiar faces to Oscar watchers than American Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, who co-star in China’s “Back to 1942”. Brody is good as a journalist trying to bring news of the grave famine to the rest of the world. Robbins however sports a fake Italian accent in a performance worthy of a Raspberry Award. Another Oscar nominee- Berenice Bejo (“The Artist”)- and up-and-coming French star Tahar Rahim (“The Prophet”) co-star in the Iranian nominee, “The Past” (which of course is really a French film). “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” co-stars Zhang Ziyi of China and Chang Chen of Taiwan re-unite in Hong Kong’s “The Grandmaster” opposite local superstar Tony Leung (“Lust, Caution”).

Less well-known but still visible….Indonesian grande dame Christine Hakim co-stars in “Sang Kiai”…..In a great example of people-to-people diplomacy, one of India’s most acclaimed actors- Naseeruddin Shah-co-stars in the Pakistani submission “Zinda Bhaag”…..1960s martial arts star Yu Wang plays the lead in Taiwan’s “Soul”.

Controversies and Changes: The biggest controversy came out of India, when the favorite "The Lunchbox" was snubbed for the obscure "The Good Road". There was sniping back and forth between the Indian Film Academy, the director of "The Lunchbox", as well as snide comments (all true) from the film's foreign producers (including Bosnia's Danis Tanovic)....There was also disbelief but less noise at the snub of Hirokazu Koreeda's "Like Father, Like Son" in Japan.

Sour grapes marred Pakistan's first submission in 50 years as one of the rival shortlisted films ("Chambaili")  attacked "Zinda Bhaag" and the Pakistani selection committee for a number of ridiculous reasons, including claiming it was "corruption" that the decision was made before "Zinda Bhaag" had premiered in Pakistani cinemas (This is normal....Many countries choose a late release). Proving that nothing is simple in South Asia, there was also some griping in nearby Nepal that the winning director had recently naturalized to become a French citizen. A number of Iranians also complained about the selection of "The Past" instead of an "authentic" Iranian film. I agree somewhat, but those complaining were clearly more upset that the film was not Islamic enough rather than concerned with nationality. I like Farhadi so I'm happy the Iranian Academy and AMPAS decided to show some flexibility. I've always said AMPAS should normally defer to the country to decide a film's nationality.

Omissions: The blogosphere went crazy over the omission of pre-selection favorites "The Lunchbox" from India and "Like Father, Like Son" from Japan.
 
Also absent: Brillante Mendoza's "Thy Womb" (Philippines), "Modest Reception" (Iran) and "Harmony Lessons" (Kazakhstan).
Last year's race: The Asia-Pacific countries sent 18 films last year....I saw 12 including three that were really good- Korea's disturbing "Pieta" (A), Afghanistan's thought-provoking "The Patience Stone" (A-) and India's entertaining "Barfi" (B+). I also saw the films from Australia (C+..."Lore" was a big disappointment), Bangladesh ("Pleasure Boy Komola", B-), China ("Caught in the Web", B), Hong Kong ("Life Without Principle", C), Indonesia, ("The Dancer", C+), Malaysia ("Bunohan", C+), Singapore ("Already Famous", B+), Taiwan ("Touch of the Light", Winner of the DC International Film Festival, B) and Thailand ("Headshot", B+).
Next up: The candidates from Western Europe- Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK
 
 
 

Monday, December 2, 2013

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- Eastern Europe (19 films)

Here is a review of the films from the nations of Eastern Europe, including the debut entries from Montenegro and Moldova.

For those of you who are interested in trying to see some of these movies, the nominees from Austria, Brazil, China and France are available on Netflix in the United States, the films from Hong Kong and Luxembourg are available on iTunes, and the films from Denmark and Hong Kong are available on yesasia.com. Several others (including Belgium, Korea, Portugal and as of December 5, New Zealand) are available online and in their countries of origin with English subtitles.


BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR:
19. LITHUANIA- "Conversation About Important Topics"
18. MOLDOVA- "All God's Children"
17. SLOVAKIA- "My Dog Killer"
16. AZERBAIJAN- "Steppe Man"
15. MONTENEGRO- "Ace of Spades"

Welcome to Moldova and Montenegro! I feel terrible putting this year's two debutantes in the bottom category, but let's be realistic- these two small Eastern European republics won't be nominated this year. MONTENEGRO's crime drama "Bad Destiny" looks interesting. It's about a Montenegrin man who is released from jail for war crimes committed while he was part of an elite paramilitary unit during the Bosnian wars. It turns out due to a series of twists and turns that the incriminating video of the wartime executions that put him in jail was released to the media by the man himself (but why?) and he ends up on the run from his old paramilitary colleagues who have emerged from hiding (they were also shown committing war crimes on the video) to take revenge. I visited Montenegro last year, and the film promises action and lovely scenery, but this is clearly a genre action film....As for MOLDOVA, "All God's Children", it's about a young boy and his mother who left the country years before to work in the sex industry in Italy. A Western couple is trying to adopt the boy, when the mother mysteriously returns. Turns out she is being blackmailed to sell the child. A topical film for Moldova (although the director is from neighboring Romania; both countries speak the same language), which is an unfortunate hub for human trafficking....However, one look at the trailer indicates that this is a low-budget effort with very low production values. It looks like a television program. Good luck in the future, and I'll definitely search these movies out.

AZERBAIJAN and SLOVAKIA also fall into the category of "not good enough". "Steppe Man" (from Azerbaijan) is about a man living in a isolated rural area, who searches for a bride after the death of his father. It sounds interesting, but this is purely of cultural interest. The trailer has some lovely scenery, but countless shots of camels chewing cud on the barren steppes make this look very much like a cultural documentary from the former Soviet Union. I've seen "My Dog Killer" (from Slovakia), about a 20-year old neo-Nazi out to impress his gang, his mother who disgraced his family by running away with a Gypsy man who soon abandoned her, and his pit bull. There are a lot of interesting ideas here about racism, extremism and youth alienation in Eastern Europe, but the director doesn't do much with them. Reviews have been middling and despite a burst of energy at the end, it's all too little, too late.

All these films will do much better than the bizarre entry from LITHUANIA, which has sent a minimalist documentary short (62 minutes) for the third time. "Conversations on Serious Topics" is not really a film....Apparently, the director asks a series of penetrating questions to Lithuanian children and films their reactions. The director has boasted that she minimized editing to capture natural reactions. Even if it's well-made, it all sounds like a home movie. It also has possibly the worst trailer in film history. For this, the Lithuanians ignored the first local film to get an international release??

EXTREMELY UNLIKELY:

 14. RUSSIA- "Stalingrad"
13. BULGARIA- "Color of the Chameleon"
12. LATVIA- "Mother, I Love You"
11. UKRAINE- "Paradjanov"
For one reason or another, these four films from Bulgaria and the former USSR arme not likely to appeal to the Oscar committee. BULGARIA and LATVIA are hobbled by their genres. LATVIA's "Mother, I Love You" is arguably the best-reviewed of the four and it's said to be a solid film for adolescents. In the film (directed by a man infamous in England for a series of "dine and dash" robberies, rather than his filmmaking ability), a 12-year old with a hard-working single mother is tempted by juvenile delinquency when his friend gives him access to a woman's empty flat in Riga. It's said to be a good film with good performances, but youth-themed films have never scored here. BULGARIA's abdurdist, Kafkaesque black spy comedy "Colour of the Chameleon" combines a whole lot of genres, none of which is likely to appeal much to Oscar. In the film, a spy uses the tricks he learned working for the Communist authorities for his own devices after the fall of the regime. It's said to be quirky and original, but definitely also too weird and too surreal for Oscar.

Surrealist director Sergei Paradjanov is the subject of UKRAINE's biopic "Paradjanov". Paradjanov was Armenian but as a Soviet director, it's my understanding that he made films in what is now Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. "Paradjanov" looks interesting and some of the older voters may fondly remember references some of his classics like "Colour of Pomegranates" in this film. But I doubt most Hollywood voters will be familiar with his story. Apparently Paradjanov was also a Soviet dissident and possibly also gay (according to this film) and this film spends a lot of time on his battles with Soviet authorities. The film is just too obscure to score here.

RUSSIA's big-budget "Stalingrad" has high production values, a slick Hollywood storyline and is set during World War II, which Oscar loves. Their problem? It's supposed to be a pretty awful film. Though the film has rocked the box-office in Russia and China, foreign critics have mostly savaged this film about a series of ultra-patriotic Soviet soldiers who mostly die defending a house in Stalingrad, one of the most decisive battles in WWII. It's true that some praise the visuals, but that's not enough for a film that most people clearly hate.

UPHILL BATTLE:

10. CROATIA- "Halima's Path"
9. HUNGARY- "The Notebook"
8. CZECH REPUBLIC- "The Don Juans"
7. ALBANIA- "Agon"

Facing an uphill battle are these four obscure films from Central Europe and the Balkans. The CZECH REPUBLIC's sexy opera comedy "The Don Juans" (working title: "Skirt Chasers") looks good on paper- a Czech farce by Oscar-winning director Jiri Menzel- and it's all supposed to be fun....But the trailer has so many topless women, it almost looks like a comedy T&A film from the 1980s, except with middle-aged Czech men instead of high-school kids. I think it's too light and silly to score here.
Grim tales set during and after wartime set the tone for HUNGARY (during World War II) and CROATIA (post-Balkan wars) this year. I originally expected the Hungarians to be a major contender this year, but "The Notebook" has gotten mixed notices for its adaptation of an Agata Kristof novel (thanks to a reader for pointing out this is not the Hungarian spelling og Agatha Christie, as I originally thought!!) about twin boys from the city who are sent to live in the countryside with an abusive aunt to avoid the War. In a series of endless voice-overs, the emotionless boys try to adapt themselves to extreme emotional and physical pain to survive the war. Hungary sent a superior film ten years ago ("Fateless") about a Jewish teen during WWII and if that wasn't nominated, neither will this. "Halima's Path" is about a bereaved mother searching for the remains of her son, killed during the Balkan wars. In order to conceal a family secret, she refuses the DNA testing that should help her to find her son. "Halima" has gotten good reviews, but is probably too small to stand out.

I'm personally rooting for ALBANIA's "Agon" (Dawn) which looks like one of the most interesting films in the race this year. Two Albanian brothers seek work in Greece. The older brother works hard, takes a Greek name, and desperately tries to adapt and succeed. The headstrong younger brother is disillusioned and violent, conforming to many of the stereotypes Albanians are tagged with in the West. Moral dilemmas, bonds of kinship, nationalism, immigration, prostitution, extreme violence and other issues are explored. I can't wait to see it. The one and only review I've been able to find was positive, but zero buzz will probably doom the film to finish well, but well outside the Top Nine.

DARK HORSES:
6. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker"
5. GEORGIA- "In Bloom"
4. POLAND- "Walesa"

 These three films will all have their backers but ultimately I think they will all fail to make it to the next round.

Oscar winners Danis Tanovic and Andrzej Wajda are hoping for one more trip to the podium.....BOSNIA's Tanovic ("No Man's Land") has awakwardly titled docudrama "An Episode in the Life of An Iron Picker", about a Roma couple desperate for cash for the wife's medical treatment. Based on a true story that made headlines in Bosnia, this low-budget film won the Silver Berlin Bear (2nd prize) in Berlin. Tanovic cast the real-life family as themselves with a reported budget of $25,000 US dollars....This spare, minimalist film will be warmly received, but is surely too "small" to make it further. POLAND's Wajda has "Walesa", a large-scale biopic of Lech Wałęsa, the labor leader and former President who is often credited for helping to bring down the Communist system in Poland. This is a confusing one....Oscar likes biopics, but the Foreign Film committee does not. However, Walesa is well-known enough that the story will be familiar to the older-skewing committee. Reviews have been mostly good and Wajda has a strong record in this category, but reviews have said the film is "solid" rather than "great". However, that may work in it's favor....Countless Oscar nominees over the years have been "solid" and certainly not "great". There's definitely a maybe with the large committee.

As for GEORGIA's coming-of-age drama, many critics hail it as an indication of a "Georgian New Wave"....However, Oscar has never cared much for the "Romanian New Wave" either (see next box for "Child's Pose" and its chances), nor do they care for "girl power" in this category. "In Bloom" (Berlinale 2013) has gotten very good reviews for this story of two girls growing up in newly independent Georgia in the 1990s, amidst the civil war with Abkhazia, but I don't think it will touch enough of a nerve here.




FRONT-RUNNERS
3. ROMANIA- "Child's Pose
2. SLOVENIA- "Class Enemy"
1. SERBIA- "Circles"

I have a feeling these three films will be serious contenders for a spot on the shortlist, but remember that the Eastern European countries have netted just three shortlist spots in the past five years (Poland's "In Darkness" was the only Eastern European film to get a nomination). The Easterners could be shut-out again.


Berlinale 2013 winner "Child's Pose" from ROMANIA is said by many to be the most accessible of Romania's much ballyhooed New Wave. In it, a wealthy socialite uses every corrupt connection she has in order to save her aimless 20-something son from taking responsibility for running over a child from a poor family while drunk. The elite committee often saves big Festival films, but they probably did that with Romania's "Beyond the Hills" last year....Will that affect their decision to save Romania two years in a row? The big committee has consistently shown that they don't like the Romanian New Wave and I think "Child's Pose" will just barely miss the cut. I'm a little more confident with SERBIA and "Circles". Director Srdan Golubović made the shortlist in a very competitive year (2007-2008) and deserved to win the Oscar, but AMPAS sadly preferred the dusty "The Counterfeiters" and three other well-made-but-unexciting nominees (I never saw the fifth- "Katyn"- so I can't judge). Golubović has made another moral dilemma drama and it looks great. A Good Samaritan Serb is killed by thugs when he tries to save a Muslim man from an attack. Years later, the Muslim man is a successful doctor in Germany, and one of the thugs life may depend on him. But the story is more complicated than that and I can't wait to see it. I think this will be a serious contender for either committee. Not sure it can make the Top, but I've got my fingers crossed.
SLOVENIA's films are not usually contenders, but I have a funny feeling "Class Enemy" will strike a chord with the elite small committee. Probably the best-reviewed Slovenian film in their independent history, this is a psychological thriller about a tight-knit group of Slovenian students who confront their new German teacher, whom they blame for the suicide of their classmate. "The Class" (France) and the superior "Confessions" (Japan) both explored some of these same themes in very different ways and its possible both were saved by the small committee. It's impossible to know, but Slovenia might just make it.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15........2 films are in Bosnian (Bosnia, Croatia) and 2 in Serbian (Montenegro and Serbia), which are really dialects of the same language.....2 in Russian (Russia, Ukraine) and 2 in Romanian (Moldova, Romania), plus one each that are mostly in Albanian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Czech, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak and Slovene. Several of the films are multi-lingual (particularly Albania, Moldova and Russia)

Highest profile film: Berlin Golden Bear winner "Child's Pose" (ROMANIA), followed by Berlin Silver Bear winner, "An Episode in the Life of An Iron Picker" (BOSNIA).

Number of Eastern European countries participating this year: 20 (including Estonia, which is in the Western Europe section)

Number of Eastern European countries that have participated in the past: 21 plus first-time entrants MOLDOVA and MONTENEGRO.

Number of countries opting out: 3....ARMENIA, BELARUS and MACEDONIA.

Grumpy BELARUS hasn't sent a film in 17 years, but Armenia and Macedonia were expected to send films. Oddly, former Oscar nominee MACEDONIA convened a selection committee and reviewed two films ("Balkan Is Not Dead" and "Piano Room"). I don't know much about them but they're both well-rated on IMDB. Not sure what happened with ARMENIA, but I bet they would have picked "Paradjanov" (which is, after all, the biopic of an Armenian filmmaker) if Ukraine had selected either of the other two films on their shortlist.

Cineuropa reported that KOSOVO, the only remaining Eastern European country, was told by AMPAS that they couldn't send a film until they were recognized by the United Nations. If true, this is rather unbelievable since non-member Palestine was recognized in 2003 and Greenland in 2010. The USA has recognized Kosovo since 2008 and the European Film Promotion since 2012 and the UN block is due to Russian political considerations that should have nothing to do with filmmaking awards.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: There are no "slam dunks", but there are a lot of films that will likely finish in the top tier of countries....I'd say 4 have a realistic shot.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I think I did great! 10 correct, including some difficult ones....Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Serbia, and I came super-close with obscure Azerbaijan.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: There's quite a few interesting films, but I'd choose Slovenia's "Class Enemy". I've already seen the downer entry from Slovakia and may get a chance to see the Latvian entry in DC.....

Feature Debuts: 5 films are feature debuts (Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovenia and Ukraine)

Number of ComediesCZECH REPUBLIC has screwball comedy "The Don Juans" while BULGARIA has surreal spy comedy "Colour of the Chameleon".

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries and Horror Films: One documentary- LITHUANIA's terrible-looking minimalist "Conversations About Serious Topics".

Oscar History: Three previous Oscar winners are in the bunch- BOSNIA's Danis Tanovic ("No Man's Land", Best Foreign Film, 2002), CZECH REPUBLIC's Jiri Menzel ("Closely Watched Trains", Best Foreign Film, 1968, plus one other nomination for Foreign Film) and POLAND's Andrzej Wajda (Honorary Oscar for directing, 2000 plus four other Oscar nominations for Foreign Film). Hungary and Russia have also won the award, while Georgia has been nominated.

Four of the other directors have been in the Oscar race before- Croatia's Arsen Anton Ostojić ("A Wonderful Night in Split", "No One's Son"), Hungary's János Szász ("Woyzeck", "The Witman Boys"), Russia's Feodor Bondarchuk ("Ninth Company) and Serbia's Golubović (the brilliant, Oscar shortlisted "The Trap").

Number of Female Directors: Four women are competing this year. Giedrė Beinoriūrė (the first woman to compete for Lithuania), Nana Ekvtimishvili (Georgia), Olena Fetisova (Ukraine) and Mira Fornay (Slovakia). Ekvimishvili and Fetisova co-directed their films with foreign male directors.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 87-year old Andrzej Wajda (Poland) and 75-year old Jiří Menzel (Czech Republic) are the two oldest directors in the competition this year. 28-year old Rok Biček (Slovenia) is the youngest from the Eastern European group.
 
Familiar Faces: Oddly enough, the most familiar faces are in the Montenegrin entry. American actor Michael Madsen ("Kill Bill", "Sin City") co-stars in "Ace of Spades: Bad Destiny", and Harry Potter fans will also recognize Serbian actor Predrag Bjelac who played Headmaster Karkaroff in "Goblet of Fire". Two of Romania's greatest modern actors co-star in "Child's Pose", namely Luminița Gheorghiu (best known as the paramedic in "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") and Vlad Ivanov (best known as the abortionist "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days"). And Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen
("In A Better World") plays a supporting role as a Nazi in Hungary's "The Notebook".

Serbian actor Nebojša Glogovac is not a household name but he co-starred in one of my favorite Oscar submissions, "Klopka" and again this year in "Circles". Fans of this category may remember Czech actress Libuse Safránková ("The Don Juans") as the female lead in 1997 winner "Kolya". German actor Thomas Kretschmann ("The Pianist") plays the Nazi German lead amidst the battle of "Stalingrad". Actor Michael Ironside (Moldova's "All God's Children") is somewhat well-known in his native Canada. Poland's Robert Więckiewicz co-starred in Oscar nominee "In Darkness" and dozens of other Polish films.

The world is so international these days that most of these people are not from the country they are representing.

Controversies and Changes: CZECH REPUBLIC originally submitted "Burning Bush" by Polish Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland. The Czechs forcefully argued that the film version was significantly different  than the 4-hour miniseries that premiered on Czech TV in February. AMPAS (correctly) disagreed, concluding it had appeared on television before its theatrical run and the Czechs submitted "The Don Juans" instead. RUSSIA's big-budget 3D WWII drama "Stalingrad" muscled its way into a wide-open field at the last minute, by staging a one-theatre run prior to its scheduled premiere.

Last year's race: I saw 7 of last year's 20 films from Eastern Europe (including the Estonian entry which I include in Western Europe this year). The best of a weak lot was MACEDONIA's historical football drama "The Third Half" (B). Serbia (B-), Ukraine (C+) and Azerbaijan (C+) sent rather average films, while the Baltic films from Estonia (D+), Hungary (D+) and Lithuania (D) were pretty bad.

Next up: The 19 candidates from Asia and Oceania- Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand