Thursday, November 13, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 20 Nominees from Canada, Latin America & Africa

83 submissions?! Only a few years ago 50 films was considered to be a record, so this number is truly astounding. Literally almost every film-making country in the world is here, including several that make films mostly in English. You have to feel for the Academy, which now has to schedule double the screenings in a shorter period than before (shortlist used to be announced in mid-January....Now it's mid-December).

Of course it’s true that half of these films don’t actually have the slightest chance at getting a nomination...But when small countries send their best film to Hollywood, foreign movie fans like me and many others go out in search of them. I’ve seen so many hidden gems this way- Kazakhstan’s “Kelin”, Hong Kong’s “The Day the Sun Turned Cold”, Netherlands’ “Borgman” and Estonia’s “Klass” just to name a few....And that's why I keep up the effort to see everybody's film. The Foreign Film Award is a wonderful way to get publicity for smaller filmmaking industries- which is why I’m so confused as to this year’s two major drop-outs, Albania and Kazakhstan.

One big trend this year is REALITY....With four documentaries (Luxembourg, Panama, Portugal, Switzerland) seven biopics (France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Morocco, Venezuela), four "ripped from the headlines" dramas (Chile, Ethiopia, Malta and the Netherlands), one "true story" costume drama (Germany) and no less than THREE autobiographical stories about the lives of their directors (Costa Rica, Denmark and Latvia), not to mention several others with some basis in historical events (Bolivia, New Zealand, etc.), there's less fiction than usual. It'll be interesting to see if any of these "true" stories break through. I tend to find original stories do better in this category (unless they're about World War II).

So, first let’s take a look at the films from The Americas and Africa. Both regions sent a record number of films- (15 + 5), including the return of Bolivia after a 5-year absence, and the first-ever submissions from Mauritania and Panama.

20. MOROCCO- “The Red Moon”
19. PANAMA- “Invasion”
18. EGYPT- “Factory Girl”
16. COSTA RICA- “Princesas Rojas" (Red Princesses)

One of this year’s least likely Oscar contenders is the obscure ”La lune rouge” (The Red Moon), a biopic from MOROCCO about the acclaimed blind musician/composer Abdessalam Amer whose career collapsed during the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Where to start? First of all, American audiences have no idea who Amer is, and they also have no connection to his music (including his famous-in-Morocco tune “La lune rouge”). They probably have even less context to understand the 1971 coup d’etat prominently featured in the film. Add to that the fact that the production values look kind of old-fashioned and hardly anyone has either seen or heard of the film (zero buzz) and La lune rouge is one of the year's biggest non-starters.

Unlike Morocco's 1971 coup, American audiences will definitely have more familiarity with the historical events depicted in PANAMA's documentary “Invasion”. After all, the 1989 US invasion of Panama was only 25 years ago- well within memory- and the documentary is supposed to be a thought-provoking one, exploring the memories and experiences of different people from different social classes whose “true stories” about the invasion all seem to contradict one another. Despite good reviews, it’s a documentary and it’s fairly short (70 minute) meaning I can’t see it advancing against weightier and more sophisticated fare.

Two of Latin America’s smaller countries- COSTA RICA and the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- are also out of luck. “Red Princesses” (Berlinale 2013), a small-scale drama about two girls growing up in a family of Communist revolutionaries during the Cold War, has been praised for the performance of its child actresses but higher-profile films with similar subject matter (“Kamchatka”, “Clandestine Childhood”) have failed to advance, and reviews haven't been as strong as those Argentinian films. “Cristo Rey” is a Dominican re-telling of Romeo & Juliet with overt racial overtones about two half-brothers (one with a Dominican mother, the other with a deported Haitian one) pursuing the same girl in the Dominican inner city. It looks interesting but critics say the film is "okay" but flawed.

That leaves EGYPT and their supposedly feminist drama “Factory Girl”. It's about a poor factory worker who daydreams about her handsome supervisor only to find her reputation destroyed after a rumor spreads that she is pregnant with his child. Though the film has been well-received in Arab fests, Western critics have not been kind. They criticize both the performance of the lead actor and a story they say does not translate well to Western audiences (they see it as misogynist rather than feminist). Egypt has been submitting films since the 1950s with no success, and "Factory Girl" won’t change things.

15. BOLIVIA- “Olvidados” (The Forgotten)
14. SOUTH AFRICA- “Elelwani”
13. COLOMBIA- “Mateo”
12. ECUADOR- “Silencio en la tierra de los sueƱos" (Silence in Dreamland)
11. URUGUAY- “Mr. Kaplan”

These five obscure films haven’t won any awards internationally and so will struggle to make an impact in a field of 83 films. I’ve seen URUGUAY's droll “Mr. Kaplan”, a comedy about an elderly Jewish man who escaped the Holocaust as a child, who tries to find meaning in his life by kidnapping an elderly German man he suspects (without any proof) of being a Nazi. Although some like the film, I found it mostly forgettable- not funny enough as a drama and not dramatic enough as a drama (I felt the director's previous "A Bad Day to Go Fishing" balanced the two genres better). COLOMBIA's “Mateo” is about a gangbanger teenager whose crime boss uncle asks him to infiltrate a local actor’s troupe. Despite his rough past, Mateo develops strong relationships with the people he is supposed to be spying on. It has also gotten some good reviews, although critics consistently point out this is “a youth film with a moral”, with one even comparing it (albeit favorably) to an After-School special. Ouch. BOLIVIA 's “Olvidados” (The Forgotten) is an historical drama about a dying General confessing the sins that he and the Bolivian Government committed during Bolivia’s 1970s military dictatorship to his adult son on his deathbed, including abductions, arbitrary arrest and kidnappings. The film boasts Damian Alcazar (one of Mexico's greatest actors) and might be well-suited to a Human Rights Film Festival. However, the political subject matter may alienate some Academy memebrs and reviews have been decidedly mixed at home in Bolivia.

From South America to Africa, we have “Elelwani” the first-ever film made in the Venda language and the first South African Oscar submission ever to be directed by a Black director. Though SOUTH AFRICAis usually a contender and though the feminist plot is interesting (a modern young woman’s dreams of studying abroad are rudely interrupted when her traditionalist parents suddenly announce her engagement to an elderly nobleman in their home village), reviewerss note that is definitely a work of a director still learning his craft. I’ve heard it’s well-meaning but rather average, with many comparing it to a telefilm.

Finally, ECUADOR's “Silence in Dreamland” is the hardest film to rank...Although it beat out Berlinale favorite “Feriado” to represent Ecuador, there’s virtually no information about it online! The film is about the life of a deaf widow who retreats into a world of fantasy after the death of her husband. Clearly the life of a deaf woman presents certain cinematic challenges (see “Be With Me”) and the trailer looks decidedly arty, albeit with some lovely music. It’s just hard to see this getting very far, but with no reviews, one never knows!


10. ETHIOPIA- “Difret”
9. CHILE- “To Kill A Man”
8. PERU- “Gospel of the Flesh”
7. BRAZIL- “The Way He Looks”

6. MEXICO- “Cantinflas”

I’ve been hearing Brazil, Chile and Ethiopia mentioned frequently in the “shortlist” conversation (and Mexico's "Cantinflas" a bit less so), but these four films are all likely to be passed over this year due to different obstacles. Let’s start with the high-profile “Cantinflas” from MEXICO. This biopic of one of Mexico’s most respected comedians quickly got a US distributor and a US release. Working against it? Well, no one really loves the film. Reviews have ranged from “positive but unenthusiastic” to decidedly negative. In its favor? Well, easy/unchallenging Mexican soap operas like “Father Amaro” and “Tear this Heart Out” managed to make the shortlist with similarly unenthusiastic reviews. It also features enough quite a bit of English to make the film an easier watch for American audiences (but not enough to risk disqualification). It will probably finish better than most people expect but “Cantinflas” would have a better shot in a weaker year.

BRAZIL's LGBT-youth drama “The Way He Looks” has the opposite problem. Everyone seems to really like the film. It’s rarely gotten a bad review for its sweet story about a blind teen dealing with first love at his school. As touched as everyone is by the story, LGBT films rarely score here and most people admit that as charming as the film is, it’s really just a well-done coming-of-age story...not a legitimate awards contender. The elderly large committee may be turned off by the gay angle, and the elite committee will be looking for something more edgy.

CHILE's tense thriller “To Kill A Man” arranged an early release to represent Chile, easily winning the nod (and doubtlessly causing annoyance to surreal drama “Dance of Reality” and family mystery “Illiterate” which lost their chance). The violent revenge film about a meek middle-class father avenging a crime perpetrated against his family is said to be disturbing and unpleasant to watch. While the filmmaking may be good, this is not the sort of genre usually honored at the Oscars, and many viewers simply don't like it. Too divisive.

ETHIOPIA's “Difret” also deals with the issue of justifiable homicide. Based on a true story, “Difret” deals with a teenaged girl who is put on trial for murder when she kills an older man trying to abduct her into a forced marriage. The title is a play on words in can mean “courage” or “rape”. “Difret” has gotten a lot of buzz because of executive producer Angelina Jolie and because it’s exotic and because we rarely see films from Ethiopia on the international film festival circuit. Despite winning two big Audience Awards (Sundance and Berlinale Panorama) this year, most film critics say “Difret” is primarily a culturally interesting film with a powerful cultural message.

Last in this group is PERU's “Gospel of the Flesh”, a gritty “Amores Perros”-style drama about the intersecting lives of three men (an undercover cop, a football coach and a bus driver who has found religion) as they deal with personal struggles tragedies and moral dilemmas in modern-day Lima. Unlike the other four, this film has no buzz, but those who have seen it say it’s very good. Ultimately, it will probably place better than we expect (perhaps 25th or 30th out of the 83 films), but probably won’t contend for a nomination.


5. CUBA- “Conducta” (Behavior)
4. VENEZUELA- “Libertador” (Liberator)
3. CANADA- “Mommy”

Canada, Cuba and Venezuela all made smart choices this year and are hoping to grab the eighth or ninth spot on the list. Cuba and Venezuela face an uphill climb.

VENEZUELA's "Libertador" is a rumored 50-million dollar biopic of national hero Simon Bolivar. With excellent production values, lavish battle scenes and gorgeous costumes and the added bonus of an interesting, complicated historical figure, critics have mostly praised the film. However, biopics rarely score here (American viewers may not be overly familiar with South America's most important historical figure) and even fans of the film note the inherent impossibility of condensing Bolivar's life into two hours. Key reviewers note that it lacks the "spark" (Variety) to reach greatness. From CUBA comes "Conducta" a simple, low-budget tale about the relationship between a poor boy from a dysfunctional family and his elderly teacher who's being forced into retirement. No battle scenes, just a good story, simply told. I haven't seen the film, but I've heard it's very good. If this were ten years ago, with 50 countries and a traditional committee that loves simple stories about kids, "Conducta" might be in with a chance. Now, this small film will probably just be recognized as a good film among two or three dozen good films.

That leaves Xavier Dolan's "Mommy" from CANADA. Dolan is brilliant and "I Killed My Mother" (which Canada submitted) and "Heartbeats" (which Canada did NOT) deserved Oscar nominations. Cannes Jury Prize winner "Mommy"- about a mother dealing with a hyperactive, foul-mouthed, occasionally violent, occasionally loveable teenager- is not my favorite Dolan film, but it does seem to be the most accessible. The reason I love Dolan's films are their flawed but completely relatable characters. In "Mommy", I simply didn't LIKE Steve. In any case, I'm worried that Oscar's elderly crowd just doesn't GET Dolan and his hyper-verbose ultra-modern screenplays...Will the Elite Committee save him and continue Canada's obscene winning streak (6 films shortlisted in 8 years)? They very well may....And despite being a pre-nomination favorite, that's probably "Mommy"'s only chance.

2. ARGENTINA- “Wild Tales”
1. MAURITANIA- “Timbuktu”

With contenders from Argentina, Canada and Mexico, who would have guessed that this group's top contender is from MAURITANIA??? Yet France-based Abderrahmane Sissako's brilliant, gentle, touching, sad, funny, shocking and human "Timbuktu" is surely one of the best films on the list, but being "good" doesn't guarantee you a trip to Hollywood. "Timbuktu" however checks all the right boxes. Its story of the Islamic takeover of Timbuktu (in neigboring Mali) is relevant and topical, but doesn't require any deep knowledge of the Malian politican situation. It's artistic and beautiful yet surprisingly accessible. It's serious, but has a sense of humor. I was lucky to see "Timbuktu" at the Busan Film Festival and I'm fairly certain this one will be on the list. If so, Mauritania will become the first country to get an Oscar nomination on their first try since Nepal's "Caravan" achieved the feat in 1999/2000.

As for ARGENTINA, I'm a little less sure. Black comedy "Wild Tales" is wildly popular and reviews have been great. The film has won numerous Audience Awards (though few other awards) at festivals around the world for its six comedic stories of love and revenge. I can't wait to see it. There's a big debate as to whether or not this Tarantino/Ritchiesque film will be able to snag a nomination. The large committee prefers serious but non-challenging films. The elite committee is rumored to like more artistic, festival fare. "Wild Tales" doesn't seem to fall into either of these categories and risks being left off entirely. Although Oscar doesn't usually like comedies, they can certainly be great films. This one is on the bubble but it's so well-liked it will certainly be a big threat.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Seven. 13 films are in Spanish while 2 are in Arabic. That leaves one each in Amharic (Ethiopia), French (Canada), Portuguese (Brazil) and the first-ever feature film in Venda (South Africa). Mauritania’s “Timbuktu” is in six languages, primarily Hassaniya (a distinct dialect of Arabic) and Tamazight.

Highest profile film: Most people would say Argentina’s buzzy black comedy “Wild Tales”, co-produced by Pedro Almodovar, though the Canadians might disagree.

Number of American/African countries participating this year: 20.

Number of debuts: 2. Mauritania and Panama.

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 28

Number of countries opting out: Almost nobody! This year saw record participation from both regions. Of the countries that didn’t submit, Chad and Nicaragua probably had no films that met all the eligibility requirements and Puerto Rico is no longer invited by AMPAS. The remaining countries (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, Kenya and Tanzania) have only ever submitted one film apiece.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Four

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I did pretty good! I got 10/20 correct (Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Rep., Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay) and would have gotten three more (Brazil, Chile and Venezuela) were it not for slippery release dates (Brazil’s “Casa Grande” didn’t open in time...Chile’s “To Kill A Man” did an early qualifying release). Ecuador and Morocco admittedly caught me completely by surprise.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from Canada (B+), Mauritania (A-) and Uruguay (C). Now I’m most excited to see front-runner “Wild Tales” and Ethiopia’s “Difret”.

Feature Debuts: 5: Laura Astorga (Costa Rica), Maria Gamboa (Colombia), Zeresenay Mehari (Ethiopia), Tito Molina (Ecuador) and Daniel Ribeiro (Brazil)

Number of Comedies: 2- Argentina and Uruguay

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: 1 documentary- Panama’s “Invasion”

Oscar History: The only prior Oscar nominee is Mexican director Carlos Bolado (this year representing Bolivia) who was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for co-directing “Promises” in 2002.

Six of the twenty directors have been entered in the Foreign Oscar race before. Ironically, Xavier Dolan (Canada), Ernesto Daranas (Cuba) and Alvaro Brechner (Uruguay) all faced off five years ago for “I Killed My Mother”, “Fallen Gods” and “A Bad Day to Go Fishing” respectively. Dolan definitely deserved an Oscar nomination, Daranas definitely didn’t while Brechner was on my bubble. Also submitted before: Leticia Tonos (“Love Child”, Dominican Republic, 2011), Mohamed Khan (“In the Heliopolis Flat”, Egypt, 2007) and Alberto Arvelo (twice for Venezuela, 1997/2001 for “One Life & Two Trails” and “House with a View of the Sea”).

Out of the 20 countries, three (Argentina, Canada and South Africa) have won the award while two more (Brazil and Mexico) have been nominated numerous times. Chile, Cuba and Peru have earned a single nomination each.

Number of Female Directors: The three Latina ladies competing are Laura Astorga (Costa Rica), Maria Gamboa (Colombia) and Leticia Tonos (Dominican Republic).

Oldest and Youngest Directors: It’s difficult to believe Xavier Dolan is only 25 (this is his fifth film). He’s the youngest out of all the 83 competitors this year. The oldest is Mohamed Khan of Egypt, who just turned 72.

Familiar Faces: American audiences will be most likely to recognize Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”) who plays the American agent in Mexico’s “Cantinflas". Venezuela’s Edgar Ramirez plays the title role in “Libertador”, and he has recently done a lot of English-speaking work in the States (“Bourne Ultimatum”, “Carlos”). Co-star Iwan Rheon is on "Game of Thrones". Argentina’s Ricardo Darin (“Wild Tales”) is also a familiar face.

Although not household names, two notable Spanish actors are in the mix: Goya winner Oscar Jaenada (“Cantinflas” but also "Pirates of the Caribbean 4") and Dario Grandinetti (“Wild Tales”) who some will remember from “Talk to Her”. Anne Dorval (“Mommy”), Damian Alcazar ("Olvidados") and Hani Abdel (“Factory Girl”) are well-known in their native Quebec, Mexico and Egypt respectively.

Special mention goes to Frank Perozo (“Cristo Rey”) who has co-starred in four Dominican submissions in a row, not to mention the final two submissions from neighboring Puerto Rico.

Having said all that, the most familiar “face” was actually behind-the-scenes...That’s Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, executive producer of Ethiopia’s “Difret.

Controversies and Changes: A virtually controversy-free year! There were some rumblings in Venezuela that the voting process was politically motivated. Jose Ramon Novoa (who repped Venezuela twice) and a few other unknown directors withdrew their films from consideration in protest but the fact is that this was always a two-way race between “Libertador” and “Bad Hair”. For the second year in a row, Venezuela ignored an acclaimed LGBT film but truth be told “Libertador” has the best chance to get a nomination for Venezuela this year, so I think Venezuela made the right choice (unlike last year, when they should have chosen the delightful “My Straight Son”/”Azul y no tan rosa” which became the first-ever Venezuelan film to win a Goya). The only other controversy is that Puerto Rico continues to be banned for no good reason.

Omissions: No mind-blowing snubs this year...Probably the most surprising omission is that there is no film from Nigeria. Nigeria had announced earlier in the year that they would be participating in the Oscar race for the first time, but they later changed their mind. Other than that, ”Bad Hair” (Toronto 2013) from Venezuela and “Feriado” (Berlin 2014) certainly had their supporters, particularly in the LGBT community. And I was a bit surprised to see Bolivia and Chile ignore “Yvy Maraey” (which got sent to the Goyas) and “The Dance of Reality”, made by two of their most celebrated national directors, as well as South Africa’s box-office hit thriller “iNumberNumber”. Also out of the running: the prolific Xavier Dolan defeated himself meaning no Oscar for “Tom at the Farm” and Viggo Mortensen couldn’t beat “Wild Tales” with period drama “Jauja”.

Last year's race: Last year, these regions sent a total of 15 films. I only saw 3- the outstanding, funny, sad and superbly charming “Gloria” (A) from Chile, the surprisingly good character study “GriGris” (B+) from Chad and the mostly forgettable “Neighbouring Sounds” (C+) from Brazil. I will see Canada’s “Gabrielle” this week.