Thursday, December 18, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 21 Nominees from Western Europe

The 21 films from Western Europe (including Israel and Turkey) are aiming to dominate this year's race as they traditionally have. Half of them have an actual shot at the Final Nine and competition is going to be tight, especially with 60 other countries jockeying for position. Will the elite committee be swayed by major awards (Turkey) or big names that have perpetually been snubbed (Belgium)? Will the big committee be impressed by buzz (Sweden) or old-fashioned storytelling (Spain)? Will they impressed by "gorgeous" films (Germany) with middling reviews or "gritty" films with better ones (Finland)? Or could they give the new kid (Malta) a chance?

21. LUXEMBOURG- "Never Die Young"
20. UNITED KINGDOM- "Little Happiness"
19. SWITZERLAND- "The Circle"
18. PORTUGAL- "What Now? Remind Me"

Documentaries generally aren't a good fit in this category, but that didn't stop perennial European underdogs Luxembourg and Portugal (as well as 2-time winner Switzerland) from sending them this year. All three of these have gotten fairly good reviews (including a Locarno Jury Prize for Portugal and a Berlinale Audience Award for Switzerland) but there's no reason to believe they'll be honored here.

LUXEMBOURG's "Never Die Young" is a 70-minute look at the life of a recovering heroin addict who ended up in a wheelchair during an escape attempt from court. Unlike Portugal and Switzerland, it hasn't won awards internationally and sounds a bit preachy. It's Western Europe's longest of long-shots.

The Foreign Film committee has shown little interest in LGBT-themed films over the years (ignoring "C.R.A.Z.Y.", "Ma vie en Rose", "Contracorriente" among others). Therefore an LGBT documentary has two strikes against it. PORTUGAL's "What Now? Remind Me" is a nearly three-hour autobiographical look at a year in the life of an HIV-positive Portuguese filmmaker. SWITZERLAND's docudrama "The Circle" is a bit more accessible (though perhaps not as good) as it combines documentary and interview footage with re-enactments of a gay love story in homophobic 1958 Switzerland. I've heard some say that "The Circle" might have done better as one or the other (doc vs. drama) and might be better suited for television. "What Now?" will struggle to find a support base.

As for the UK's obscure Turkish-language "Little Happiness", it was one of the biggest surprises on this year's long list. This drama about a young Turkish couple desperately trying to escape honor killings and arranged marriages at home, was made by a Turkish director based in Britain with a mostly Turkish crew. There's little info about it online but it has the lowest IMDB rating of any film in the whole race (3.9) and the trailer looks rather grim. I'm surprised the usually finicky BAFTA submitted it. No chance.

17. AUSTRIA- "The Dark Valley"

16. FINLAND- "Concrete Night"
15. DENMARK- "Sorrow and Joy"
14. IRELAND- "The Gift"

These films simply aren't well-liked or well-reviewed enough to contemplate getting to the next round.

Recently, the Danes have been a superpower in this category, but DENMARK's "Sorrow and Joy" seems a poor choice. While one must applaud director Nils Malmros for facing his demons and making a film about the incident in which his wife Marianne murdered their young baby due to a psychotic episode (they're still together), reviews have been decidedly mixed. Positive reviews tend to focus on the emotion of the director's backstory and the performance of the lead actress rather than saying anything particularly nice about the film itself. Similarly, reviews for Tyrolean western "The Dark Valley" from AUSTRIA mostly compliment the beautiful production design but even though who LIKE the film agree it's grim and cold. Nobody seems to love it, meaning no high-ranking votes. For the record, it follows a mysterious man who receives a rather hostile reception when he arrives in a small town near the turn of the 20th century.

As for IRELAND, hoping for their first nomination in this category, "The Gift" is unlikely to be it. Reviews have been pleasant enough for this thriller (in Irish Gaelic, English and Polish) about a ship's crew facing a moral dilemma when they discover a crime scene and a huge amount of cash. But it's basically a TV movie.

Reviews for FINLAND's "Concrete Night" have been much stronger than the other three but it's the exact opposite of what the Oscar Foreign Film committee tends to select. This grim B&W drama is about a 14-year old bonding with his older brother before the latter goes to jail. The film is dark and depressing and has more in common with countless Eastern Euro dramas that have been ignored and forgotten over the years. It won't stand out.


13. FRANCE- "Saint Laurent"
12. NORWAY- "1001 Grams"
11. ICELAND- "Life in a Fishbowl"
10. MALTA- "Simshar"

Simply put, these four countries have sent well-reviewed dramas that will struggle to stand out in the crowd.

FRANCE's "Saint Laurent" is not even the biggest biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent made in France this year (though it did book a Cannes slot and get better reviews than the more widely-seen "Yves Saint Laurent"). Though France is still a film-making super-power, they haven't been nominated in five years and this biopic hasn't gotten more than average reviews.

ICELAND's "Life in a Fishbowl" is said to be the best Icelandic film of all-time. Unfortunately, the people who are saying that are all from Iceland. This drama about three characters whose lives intersect in Reykjavik on the eve of the country's 2008 financial crisis presents stories that are instantly relatable for a local audience. It captures the "zeitgeist" and will dominate the country's upcoming Edda Awards. For those outside of Iceland, they will probably see this tale of a struggling single mother, an alcoholic writer and ambitious footballer as merely a very good film.

NORWAY's Bent Hamer is on his third try with Oscar with another quiet, barely noticeable drama (he previously competed with "Kitchen Stories" and "O.Horten"), namely "1001 Grams". In the film, a female Norwegian researcher finds the potential for romance on a trip to Paris to attend a conference on defining the weight of a kilogram. Hamer's minimalist stories have never found favor with the Academy. They're not bad...just wispy and lightweight and they will struggle to stick in the memory of voters watching 81 films.

Last is MALTA, competing for the very first time with real-life shipwreck drama "Simshar". The Maltese are the second-smallest country in the race this year (Population: 415,000...just ahead of Iceland). By all accounts, "Simshar" is a powerful debut, based on a 2008 family tragedy intermixed with a story of asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. 30-year old debut filmmaker Rebecca Cremona should feel proud that Malta is probably going to beat established European powers like Bosnia, Denmark and France in the (secret) rankings, but the film probably isn't going to be considered quite strong enough to get to the Final Nine. (Having said that, the similarly themed "The Deep" made the shortlist despite similar problems). Welcome, Malta!

9. GERMANY- "Beloved Sisters"
8. TURKEY- "Winter Sleep"
7. SWEDEN- "Force Majeure"
8. ITALY- "Human Capital"
9. NETHERLANDS-"Lucia de B."

In a normal year, all five of these films would be strong threats for the shortlist, but with so much competition this year, I think they will all fall short. One could surprise.

First of all, GERMANY's "Beloved Sisters" (Berlin) has the highest production values but the weakest reviews. Although some clearly like the film, most say that this period costume drama is prettier to look at than it is to follow the true-life plot of two aristocratic sisters fighting for the attentions of a young writer. If voters want to honor a soap opera about two feuding sisters in a love triangle, they'll more likely to vote for Greece (see below). Still, it's always hard to count out Germany as they are expert judges of what AMPAS likes. But "Sisters" hasn't won a thing so I'm skeptical of its chances.

I've managed to see two of the most popular titles on the list, namely SWEDEN's "Force Majeure" (disappointing) and ITALY's "Human Capital". "Human Capital" (which beat Oscar winner "Great Beauty" at Italy's Donatello Awards earlier this year) is clearly the superior film. Skillfully telling the stories leading up to a hit-and-run accident from the perspectives of two Italian families (one aristocratic, one middle-class), "Human Capital" is both a fascinating mystery and a well-written character study. Arthouse "Force Majeure" is more of an acquired taste. A Swedish family of four on a French ski vacation experiences a frightening avalanche. Then they proceed to talk about it. And they talk about it. And then they talk about it with their friends. And then their friends talk about it. The film might inspire some existential "What if?" discussions among the audience but as a film I frankly don't understand what all the fuss is about it. Having said that, the film is one of the front-runners to get an Elite Committe slot. The arthouse critics clearly love it and it's sure to be ignored by the larger committee meaning that it may indeed make it to the next round. That would be disappointing.

TURKEY's "Winter Sleep" is a real wild card and another contender for the Elite Three. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Three Monkeys" made the shortlist in 2008 without any elite help and this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner is said to be better and more accessible. However, buzz has cooled down considerably for this drama about an urban transplant running an inn in rural Turkey and it always seemed more popular with Eurocentric critics than American ones. With 81 films in play, I think "Sleep" is destined to be an also-ran.

Lastly, we have the NETHERLANDS' "Lucia de B." (aka "The Accused), a legal thriller based on the case of a prosecutor who convicts a nurse of a number of killings but who later has a change of heart and tries to clear the woman's name. Director van der Oest has been a surprise Oscar nominee before ("Zus & Zo"). Too much of a mainstream effort to be selected by the Elite Three, this film has to try and charm the Large Committee for a chance to grab one of the final spots.


4. GREECE- "Little England"
3. ISRAEL- "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem"
2. BELGIUM- "Two Days, One Night

Belgium, Greece and Israel could all make the shortlist. Let's look at the pros and cons:

BELGIUM- "Two Days, One Night"
Overview: Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as a woman desperately trying to convince her co-workers one-by-one to save her from being laid off. If they vote to keep her on the pay-roll, all the other employees will lose their year-end bonus amounting to major economic hardship for all.
Pros: Cotillard is said to be wonderful, and the film got great reviews (though no awards) at Cannes. It also arguably has the strongest buzz of any film. The usually dull Freres Dardenne are said to reach "thriller" levels of tension. Elite Committee would stave off embarrassment by choosing it.
Cons: Oscar has never liked the Brothers Dardenne (neither have I). No Golden Globe nom.

GREECE- "Little England"
Overview: A gorgeous period drama set in the 1930s, about two sisters on a small island inhabited mainly by women (the menfolk are usually at sea) who fall for the same handsome sailor.
Pros: It's a "big" film and production values are supposed to be beautiful, helping attract votes from the tech branch members. Everyone who has seen the film says it's very good- a soap opera in the best sense of the word. Won Best Picture in Shanghai (a middle-sized fest).
Cons: The film has barely been seen outside of Greece. Running time (160 minutes) is very long. Female-centered films rarely score in this category.

ISRAEL- "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem"
Overview: A Jewish woman faces off against Israel's religiously linked "divorce court" system as she attempts to obtain a divorce from her husband over his strong objections.
Pros: Made the Top Five at the Golden Globes. American audiences will easily identify with the protagonist and relate to the film, while also being fascinated by the "foreignness" of the Jewish divorce court. Oscar likes Israel and reviews have been very strong.
Cons: None, really. It will definitely place high, but will it be high enough?

Bottom Line- It's a tight race. I think the Elite Committee will save "Two Days" if ignored by the larger group, and believe that "Gett" is very likely to qualify from the big committee. Buzz is less important with the independent-minded voters on the Foreign Film Committee so Greece could make it as well though they're more likely to be left out. It's gonna be close!


1. SPAIN-"Living is Easy with Eyes Closed"

So, I'm predicting SPAIN will be the strongest contender from Western Europe. Turkey won Cannes, Belgium has buzz and Sweden + Israel got Globe nominations, so why predict Spain as #1? Simply put, Spain has what the Academy likes. First of all, reviews have been very strong for this 1960s road trip dramedy about a professor who picks up two hitchhikers on a way to see the Beatles in concert. The film swept the Goyas in Spain and tells a bittersweet comic story that will charm older voters and alienate nobody. High ranked votes are assured and should get Spain to the Final Five for the first time since their Oscar win for "The Sea Inside" in 2005.

 Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  16, including 3 in French, 3 in German, 2 in Turkish and one each in Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and the first-ever submission made mostly in Maltese

Highest profile film:  It’s a tie between two Cannes titles, namely Belgium’s “Two Days, One Night” and Turkey Palme d’Or winner “Winter Sleep”

Number of Western European countries participating this year:  21

Number of debuts: One, Malta. With Malta’s participation, Cyprus is the only EU country and the only major film-making country in Western Europe never to enter.

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21

Number of countries opting out:  Just one! Greenland (population: 55,000) didn’t produce any feature films this year.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Strong year for Western Europe. About half the titles (10) have a decent shot at the 9-film shortlist.   

Number of countries I predicted correctly:         10- Austria, Belgium, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Spain and Turkey.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing:           I’ve already seen “Human Capital” (Italy) and "Force Majeure" (Sweden) but I’m intrigued by the moral dilemmas in Ireland’s “The Gift”.  

Feature Debuts:             This is an extremely experienced group of directors. The only debutante is Rebecca Cremona of Malta.                           

Number of Comedies:  None, really. There are some comedic elements to “Living Is Easy” and theoretically also "Force Majeure" (though I didn't find it funny) but no laugh-out-loud comedies.

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films:      Three documentaries (Luxembourg, Portugal and Switzerland) who will have no luck here.

Oscar History:  ELEVEN of the directors have been selected before, though only Paula van der Oest (Netherlands) can call herself an Oscar nominee. She got one for “Zus & Zo” in the 2002-2003 competition. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey) made the 9-film shortlist with “Three Monkeys” in 2008-2009 and was also entered in 2003 (Distant) and 2011 (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia). Most people think the Brothers Dardenne (Belgium) have been honored by Oscar, but they are only darlings at Cannes. Their  films were submitted three time previously in 1999, 2002 and 2005 (for Rosetta, The Son and The Child respectively). Also submitted in the past: Tom Collins (Ireland, 2007, Kings), Pol Cruchten (Luxembourg, 2007, Little Secrets), Bent Hamer (Norway, 2003/2008, Kitchen Stories & O. Horten), Nils Malmros (Denmark, 1977/1982/1997 for Boys, Tree of Knowledge and Barbara), Ruben Östlund (Sweden, 2009, Involuntary), David Trueba (Spain, 2003, Soldiers of Salamina) and Paolo Virzì (Italy, 2010, First Beautiful Thing). Pantelis Voulgaris’ “Brides” (Greece) was selected but disqualified in 2005.

Of the 21 countries, nine have won Oscars, five have been nominated multiple times, two have been nominated just once and one more (Turkey) has managed a shortlist spot. Only Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal (plus newcomer Malta) have never been nominated. Portugal holds the world record for most submissions with no luck whatsoever.

Number of Female Directors:  Four ladies are competing this year, namely Rebecca Cremona (Malta), Ronit Elkabetz (Israel), Pirjo Honkasalo (Finland) and Paula van der Oest (Netherlands).

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  There’s a 44-year age difference between 74-year old Pantelis Voulgaris of Greece and 30-year old Rebecca Cremona of Malta.   

Familiar Faces:  The big star of course is Marion Cotillard who stars in “Two Days, One Night” and who is hoping for a second Best Actress nomination. The French submission “Saint Laurent” also boasts a fairly big-name Francophone cast including Lea Seydoux (Mission Impossible), Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), Louis Garrel (Dreamers). Valeria Bruni Tedeschi co-stars in both the French and Italian nominees. The Spanish submission co-stars famous actors like Ariadna Gil, Jorge Sanz and frequent Almodovar collaborator Javier Camara.

You may also recognize Valeria Golino in “Human Capital”, actress-director Ronit Elkabetz  in “Gett”, Marianne Sägebrecht (“Bagdad Café”) in “The Circle”, British actor Sam Riley (“Maleficient”) in “The Dark Valley”, Nicolas Bro in “Sorrow and Joy”

Controversies and Changes:     As usual, the Western Europeans were pretty well-behaved this year. I anticipated a bit of controversy over Ireland’s submission “The Gift”, which was filmed with the intention of making both a feature film for cinemas and a television mini-series. However, unlike “Burning Bush” (disqualified last year) the film premiered in cinemas BEFORE the television series so no rules were broken.

Omissions:        Several countries had very competitive races (especially Austria, Italy and Sweden), with notable absences being crowd-pleaser "The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared" (which I thought was much better than talky "Force Majeure") and Lukas Moodysson's "We Are the Best" (both from Sweden), as well as "Amour Fou", which many thought would represent Austria, "The Wonders" and "Black Souls" (from Italy) and "Stations of the Cross" (Germany).

Last year's race:              I saw 9 of last year’s 19 submissions, including eventual winner “The Great Beauty” (B) which I thought ran out of steam halfway after a brilliant start.  My favorite was the sickly brilliant Dutch thriller “Borgman” (A), followed by Denmark’s “The Hunt” (A-). I also saw “The Wall” (B-), “Broken Circle Breakdown” (B+), “Renoir” (C), “Two Lives” (B+), “Blind Spot” (B+) and “More Than Honey” (B+)

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