Thursday, December 18, 2014



I’ve been on the road on and off for most of the past two months without a laptop so I haven’t gotten a chance to rank the Eastern Europeans (you can see a quick review at the end of the Post). But the Final Nine are being announced later today so that means it’s time for my Final Predictions.

This was a rough year. With a record 83 countries, it’s nearly impossible to get a handle on all the films competing. There are no locks. Even Mauritania’s “Timbuktu” (which I see as the most likely candidate) could easily be snubbed. With so many high-profile films in play, it may seem stupid to predict dark horses like Bulgaria and Kyrgyzstan, but I’ve got a hunch we'll see one or both of them on the Final List.

A few words about "Ida", which has somehow emerged as the front-runner for the Oscar. For those of you who haven't seen it, “Ida”, a well-lit, pleasant but forgettable B&W film from Poland. Frankly, I don’t understand all the excitement. Since when does pretty cinematography equal an Oscar? I have been predicting a surprise snub for “Ida” but its recent win at the European Film Awards and its nomination at the Golden Globes show the film clearly has a great deal of love (and momentum). I could pretend it’s the Jewish WWII subject matter, but frankly far superior films (like Hungary’s unrecognized “Fateless”) on that subject have been ignored by the committee before. So, I really don't understand....I still am not sure “Ida” can crack the Top Six but the Elite Committee is probably ready and willing to save it. But I hope not. One interesting possible scenario: BULGARIA’s Jewish themed WWII story “Bulgarian Rhapsody” (which I hear is quite good) does make the Top Six making a snub for “Ida” more palatable, and making room for "Wild Tales". Black comedy "Wild Tales" is probably the best-reviewed film on the whole list, but it will struggle to find a fan base. I hope it replaces "Ida". Fingers crossed.

1. MAURITANIA- “Timbuktu”
2. BELGIUM- “Two Days, One Night”
3. ISRAEL- “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem”
4. SPAIN- “Living is Easy with Eyes Closed”
5. KYRGYZSTAN- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”
6. POLAND- “Ida” (I hope I’m wrong!)
7. RUSSIA- “Leviathan”
8. BULGARIA- “Bulgarian Rhapsody”
9. ESTONIA- “Tangerines”

10. CANADA- “Mommy” (elite committee only)
11. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Fair Play”
12. ARGENTINA- “Wild Tales” (fingers crossed! I really hope I’m wrong!!)
13. ITALY- “Human Capital”
14. NETHERLANDS- “The Accused” (Lucia de B.)
15. GREECE- “Little England”

16. SWEDEN- “Force Majeure”
17. UKRAINE- “The Guide”
18. TURKEY- “Winter Sleep”
19. HUNGARY- White God”
20. SOUTH KOREA- “Sea Fog” (Haemoo)
21. VENEZUELA- “Libertador”

22. LEBANON- “Ghadi”
23. CUBA- “Conducta”
24. GERMANY- “Beloved Sisters”
25. ETHIOPIA- “Difret”
26. PHILIPPINES- “Norte, the End of History”
27. ICELAND- “Life in a Fishbowl”
28. MALTA- “Simshar”
29. AUSTRALIA- “Charlie’s Country”
30. KOSOVO- “Three Windows and a Hanging”

31. CHILE- “To Kill A Man”
32. GEORGIA- “Corn Island”
33. MEXICO- "Cantinflas"
34. PERU- "Gospel of the Flesh"
35. DENMARK- "Sorrow and Joy"
36. PALESTINE- "Eyes of a Thief"

No, I haven't forgotten "The Way He Looks", "Saint Laurent" or "Concrete Night". They're not contenders.

We'll find out later today!

NO CHANCE IN HELL: Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia
EXTREMELY UNLIKELY: Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Latvia, Slovakia
MIDDLE CANDIDATES: Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania
DARK HORSES: Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine
FRONT-RUNNERS: Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Russia

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+)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 21 Nominees from Asia & the Pacific

Here’s my favorite batch of submissions- the films from Asia and the Pacific. Last year, Asian countries got an impressive three spots on the 9-film list (Cambodia, Hong Kong and Palestine). I doubt they’ll maintain that number this year, but here’s hoping they get at least two. Israel + Turkey think they are Western European countries (even though they're not) so they'll be in the next round of predictions.

One surprise this year is the number of countries who selected foreign-born directors. China’s director is from France, Taiwan’s director is from Burma and Iraq’s director is from Iran. And though they have long worked in their adopted countries, Hong Kong and Australia’s directors are from China and the Netherlands respectively and Japan’s director is a Korean citizen born in Japan. Another theme from the Asian films this year is the presence of strong female lead characters. I find it interesting that the films from South and Central Asia have all chosen films dominated by strong female leads (Bangladesh, India, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan).


21. SINGAPORE- “Sayang Disayang”
20. BANGLADESH- “Glow of the Firefly”

I think it’s great that small, lesser developed film industries like BANGLADESH and SINGAPORE participate in the Oscar race. In the coming year, I’ll do my best to track down and watch these two intriguing titles. Having said that, Bengali-language melodrama “Glow of the Firefly” and low-budget Malay-language musical “Sayang Disayang” are clearly out of their league here. The spare 70-minute “Sayang Disayang” is about a grumpy old Malay-Singaporean man who is assigned a live-in Indonesian maid/caretaker who enjoys singing around the house while she cooks. Shot on a minuscule indie budget ($US315K) by a brand-new director, it looks like a visually interesting student film. And don’t expect the Malay-language melodies to resonate with the Oscar voters either. Foreign-language musicals are a hard sell. “Glow of the Firefly” (aka Jonakir Alo) is about a kind-hearted woman torn between two suitors and her dream of adopting a child. Bangladeshi films rarely have the production values to compete at the international level and “Firefly” is no exception. It’s also the only title on the list that has zero voters at the IMDB AND it will be the last of the 83 titles to screen for the committee. Not promising signs. Better luck next year.


19. THAILAND- “The Teacher’s Diary”
18. INDONESIA- “Soekarno”
17. NEPAL- “Jhola”
16. HONG KONG- “The Golden Era”

One step up the ladder are a glossy historical drama, a formulaic box-office hit rom-com, a creaky biopic and a look at the traditional Hindu custom of sati (bride burning). All of them are unlikely to appeal to the Oscar committee for several reasons. INDONESIA’s “Soekarno” is an expensive biopic of the country’s controversial first President, but the history lesson will be too obscure for American voters, Indonesian historical dramas tend to be somewhat didactic and dull and reviews have been mixed. NEPAL’s “Jhola” has a morbidly fascinating topic (a woman escapes sati, the ancient Hindu tradition of forcing widows to commit suicide by jumping on their husbands’ funeral pyre) and the filmmaking looks quite exotic and pretty. It was a major word-of-mouth success at home in Nepal, but I think the melodramatic acting will fail to appeal. The only one of these films that anyone has really heard of is Ann Hui’s three-hour biopic “The Golden Era” from HONG KONG, about an obscure Chinese female poet who died at age 35. While it’s supposed to be competently made and well-acted, it’s also supposed to be overlong and fairly boring. Poet Xiao Hong may have been very talented, but poetry is hard to translate and this film looks like a non-starter. Last in the group is THAILAND’s “The Teacher’s Diary”, a “concept” romantic dramedy about a man who falls in love with a woman he has never met by reading her diary. This was a popular hit in Thailand this year, but even the head of Thailand’s Film Academy admitted that he was perplexed about selecting this for the Oscars. Imagine the USA choosing “You’ve Got Mail” (a pleasant-enough romantic comedy) to represent the country at a prestigious international film festival and you’ve got an idea of what the Thai have done. These four have no chance.

15. TAIWAN- “Ice Poison”
14. IRAN- “Today”
13. JAPAN- “The Light Shines Only There”
12. PAKISTAN- “Dukhtar”
11. INDIA- “Liar’s Dice”

Interestingly enough, rivals India and Pakistan have both chosen similarly themed female-helmed, female-driven road movies. From PAKISTAN comes “Dukhtar” (Daughter). It’s about a wife who flees her village with her young daughter when she learns her husband plans to marry the girl off to a brutish elderly clan leader in order to end a blood feud between their two families. From INDIA, comes “Liar’s Dice” about a wife who leaves her village with her young daughter to SEARCH for her husband who has gone missing after moving to the big city to find work. “Dukhtar” has booked a number of festival screenings (Toronto, Busan) while “Liar’s Dice” has been more quiet. Having seen “Dukhtar”, it’s a good movie but it’s clearly the work of a director still learning her craft. There are a few unrealistic moments and a few too many South Asian film clichés. I haven’t seen “Liar’s Dice” yet but I get the feeling it may suffer from some of the same issues.

IRAN’s “Today” is supposed to be quite good, but reviewers note that it is too subtle to appeal to a wide audience, and sometimes too culturally “different” to be comprehensible to a Western audience. The story focuses on an Iranian taxi driver who becomes involved in the life of a pregnant single woman when she enters his cab while going into labor.

TAIWAN’s gritty “Ice Poison”, set in Burma, is about an ethnic Chinese couple’s efforts to make ends meet in a crime-ridden border area rife with drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution and violence. It has gotten some excellent reviews, but reaction has been divided with some clearly hating the slow, cinema verité style.

Lastly, JAPAN has once again made a bizarre selection choice with “The Light Shines Only There”, a grim, obscure film about an unemployed, alcoholic slacker who falls for the sister of a friend. Reviewers generally say the film is depressing and filled with drinking binges and meaningless sex. Not the sort of film that’s generally honored or appreciated here, so not sure why Japan sent it in. Why not “World of Kanako” or “Little House”?


10. NEW ZEALAND- “The Dead Lands”
9. IRAQ- “Mardan”
8. AFGHANISTAN- “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”
7. PALESTINE- “Eyes of a Thief”
In the middle of the pack are the submissions from three of Asia’s most troubled countries, plus a rare Maori epic from New Zealand.
AFGHANISTAN’s “A Few Cubic Meters of Love” (which I saw in Busan) is a really interesting love story about the relationship between the teenaged daughter of an Afghan refugee in Iran (formerly a doctor in Afghanistan, but now an exploited laborer) and a handsome Iranian boy working on the construction site where her father works. Made in Iran by a young, new director (himself an Afghan refugee), it’s not a perfect film but it certainly shows potential and packs an emotional wallop. It will place well.
NEW ZEALAND arranged an early qualifying release for Maori warrior epic “The Dead Lands” (Toronto), a violent historical action movie about a young man trying to avenge the murder of most of his clan. “Dead Lands” will be competing directly against another period warrior epic- “Kurmandjan Datka” (Kyrgyzstan) and I’d give the Kyrgyz film the edge. “Dead Lands” looks great but it just seems like too much of a violent action movie to score enough votes here. Of course, some will point to the similarities with shortlisted “Seediq Bale”, but I just think “Dead Lands” is too much of a genre pic to make it to the next round.
The obscure slow-burn mystery “Mardan” from IRAQ's Kurdistan region was one of the last films to be added to the Oscar list. It’s the directorial debut of Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s brother Batin and it’s said to be a brooding drama in the style of Nuri Bilge Ceylan about a hardened police detective investigating a murder in the Kurdish countryside. Though the film has gotten good reviews, it seems to be too cerebral. The reviews I’ve read say it relies heavily on symbolism that may not translate to the mainstream.
PALESTINE’s Najwa Najjar became the second woman to represent Palestine with “Eyes of a Thief” which opened in Ramallah at the last minute to qualify. It’s the story of a man freed from an Israeli prison after ten years who begins a desperate search for the daughter he left behind (interestingly Iraq sent a similar film, “Jani Gal”, in 2008). AMPAS has shown a great deal of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum (nominating several Israeli and Palestinian films dealing with the conflict) and “Thief” could ride that wave to victory. However, the reviews I’ve read say it’s a solid film but there’s nothing to indicate its good enough to advance further than this.


6. CHINA- “The Nightingale”
5. AUSTRALIA- “Charlie’s Country”
4. PHILIPPINES- “Norte, the End of History”
3. LEBANON- “Ghadi”

All four of these films are in with a chance, though ultimately they’ll probably fail to finish higher than 15th or 20th in the race. Loads of people are talking about “Norte, the End of History” (Cannes 2013)- a drama about a murderer who goes free and an innocent man sent to jail- from the PHILIPPINES as a potential nominee. However, I’m not convinced. First of all, it’s four hours long. Despite director Lav Diaz’s comments that a movie doesn’t have to be two hours (his latest film is eight hours) many Academy members will beg to differ (me too!). Going to the movies is not like watching a season of “The Killing”. Films and mini-series are very different animals. “Norte” does fulfill some of the criteria we’ve come to expect from the Elite Committee (it’s edgy, arty and very much in need of a save) so it definitely has a chance of being nominated by the smaller group, but forget the large committee. It appears to be on iTunes so maybe I’ll pretend it’s a TV show.
CHINA raised eyebrows when they chose the obscure “Nightingale”, a Chinese-language film directed by a Frenchman loosely remaking his own film “Le papillon”. It’s about a rural grandfather who ends up taking a trip with his spoiled, tech-obsessed granddaughter. While many were annoyed that China didn’t select one of their better-known festival efforts, the more I think about this choice, the smarter it seems to be. China’s Oscar submissions are usually praised in the West for their technical achievements but are criticized for being cold and/or lacking a certain soul. Having a European director at the helm with a Euro/French style (Oscar loves French films) and an intergenerational plotline may be the just the sort of film that Oscar likes. But reviews have been positive but enuthusiastic.
“Charlie’s Country” is the third Aboriginal film to compete at the Oscars, after “Ten Canoes” and the (terrible) shortlisted “Samson & Delilah”. Films like “Charlie” that have a lot of supporting dialogue in English make them easier to watch and might give AUSTRALIA an edge. This story of an Aboriginal man who unsuccessfully decides to “drop out” of modern society and live in the bush the way his ancestors did won Best Actor at Cannes. It’s supposed to be a good film, though it’s usually mentioned more for its acting than anything else.
LEBANON is trying for the “Amelie” slot (again) with feel-good comedy “Ghadi”, about a mentally handicapped boy who may or may not be an angel, and who breathes new life into his hectic Lebanese community. Winner of a huge number of Audience Awards worldwide, this is a definite crowd pleaser though it’s probably too light to make the next round. If Oscar didn’t go for Toronto winner “Where Do We Go Now?” (one of my favorites), they likely won’t go for the lower-profile “Ghadi” either, but here’s hoping for a US release!

2. SOUTH KOREA- “Sea Fog”
1. KYRGYZSTAN- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”

Korea and Kyrgyzstan are the most likely Asian candidates to make the Final Nine shortlist this year. Having said that, I’d be somewhat surprised if more than one made the final list.

Tense maritime thriller KOREA's “Sea Fog” (Toronto) has the stronger buzz and it’s been quite well-received by both domestic and foreign critics. However, I still predict they will fail to make it since AMPAS consistently passes over incredibly good Korean films year after year after year. (Maybe it’s the truly hideous Korean language? Could that be it?) “Sea Fog”, about a ragtag ship's crew helping to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants to South Korea, is the sort of film that may find some success with the large committee- it's mainstream enough to be widely accessible and get lots of high votes, but the filmmaking is of a high-enough quality to be appeal to the arty people. Some fault characters without depth but that's almost every movie that takes place on a boat, right?

And then there was one....That only leaves this year's dark horse Asian front-runner- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”- the expensive biopic from KYRGYZSTAN which is hoping for a “Mongol”/”Seediq Bale” slot. Though they’ve never been nominated, Kyrgyzstan consistently sends excellent films to the competition (try to see "Wedding Chest" or "Tengri"). "Queen" tells the inspiring true story of a 19th century woman who bucked local traditions and defied the odds to become a military leader and strategist who united Kyrgyz tribes against Russian invasions. “Kurmandjan Datka” will suffer a little because voters don’t know (or care) about Kyrgyz history but perhaps the unexpected “warrior queen” aspect will help them overcome that. The film has something for everyone. It's beautifully shot (which will please members of AMPAS from the technical branches...these are guys that probably doomed "4 Months, 3 Weeks" a few years ago), culturally exotic with an even mix of action and artistic flourishes. A good dark horse. Good luck to the Queen.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: A diverse crowd...The 21 films are in 17 primary languages. There are two films apiece in Arabic (Lebanon, Palestine), Mandarin (China, Hong Kong) and Persian (Afghanistan, Iran) and one film each in Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Malay, Maori, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Yolngu and the Yunnanese dialect of Chinese.

Highest profile film: The Asian countries picked a mostly obscure set of films. The most buzz seems to be whirring around 4-hour drama “Norte, the End of History”, representing the Philippines, with Korea’s “Haemoo” (Sea Fog) a close second.

Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year: 21

Number of debuts: None

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 33

Number of countries opting out: 12. The shocking absence was Kazakhstan, easily the most important country missing this year (2 shortlist spots in the past 7 years) with a real potential Oscar contender - “Harmony Lessons” (which opened domestically in Kazakhstan in December 2013). Kazakhstan is always one of the last countries to announce…Did they miss the deadline? Did they forget? They were prominently featured in Busan 2013 so it’s so sad to have their national cinema absent this year.

The other key absentees were Cambodia, which got a surprise Oscar nomination last year for “The Missing Picture” and Vietnam, which claimed they did not receive an invitation from AMPAS this year. While Vietnam did in fact have some successful films this year, it’s unclear whether Cambodia had anything eligible.
Nobody should be surprised by the absence of a few countries that have only ever submitted films once (Bhutan, Fiji, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) or twice (Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan), although I did expect Mongolia might return with gentle drama “Remote Control” (Busan) or that Malaysia might do the right thing and nominate box-office hit “The Journey” despite their racist policy of promoting only Malay-language fare.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many. Three?

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I didn’t do so well. I only got four exactly right- Australia, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, which were all fairly easy. But I think I also deserve credit for New Zealand and Palestine which I would have predicted but thought wouldn’t get released in time. Lots of countries really threw me for a loop, especially China (whose nationalist authorities chose a film by a French director) and Thailand (which chose a routine rom-com over their most critically acclaimed film of the year).

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve seen the films from Afghanistan (B+) and Pakistan (B). If I could choose one more, it would definitely be either Kyrgyzstan’s gorgeous biopic “Kurmandjan Datka” or Lebanon’s audience favorite comedy “Ghadi”.

Feature Debuts: 9! Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan), Geethu Mohandas (India), Batin Ghobadi (Iraq), Shim Sang-bo (Korea), Sadyk Sher-niyaz (Kyrgyzstan), Amin Dora (Lebanon), Yadavkumar Bhattarai (Nepal), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Sanif Olek (Singapore).

Number of Comedies: Only two- Thailand romantic dramedy “The Teacher’s Diary” and Lebanon’s “Ghadi”

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

Oscar History: Oscar has never really warmed to Asian cinema. Iran, Japan and Taiwan are the only countries who have won the award before, while only four others- China, India and Palestine- have been nominated before, plus Hong Kong for two Mainland China-produced films in the 1990s.

Only three directors have been in the race before. This is Ann Hui’s fourth time at the rodeo, having being submitted by Hong Kong in 1995 (“Summer Snow”), 1999 (“Ordinary Heroes”), and 2011 (“A Simple Life”). Reza Mirkarimi was selected twice by Iran, in 2005 (“ So Close, So Far Away”) and 2012 (“A Cube of Sugar”) though they ended up boycotting for political reasons in 2012. Last but not least, Australia’s submitted Rolf deHeer’s “12 Canoes” in 2006.

Number of Female Directors: 5 ladies this year- Ann Hui (Hong Kong), Geetu Mohandas (India), Najwa Najjar (Palestine), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Mipo Oh (Japan). Nathaniel is the first woman ever to represent Pakistan in the competition.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 67-year old Ann Hui is one of Hong Kong’s most respected directors, while 31-year old Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan) makes his feature debut with “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”. Mahmoudi’s family fled Afghanistan and moved to Iran as refugees when he was a year old.

Familiar Faces: Certainly the most familiar face is Tang Wei, star of "Lust, Caution" who plays the lead role in Hong Kong's "Golden Era". Film fans may also recognize Li Baotian ("Ju Dou"), Rena Owen ("Once We Were Warriors") and Egyptian heartthrob Khaled Abol Naga in the Chinese, New Zealand and Palestinian submissions.

Controversies and Changes: Not much in the way of controversy. Most countries chose their nominees without incident, although China did raise a few eyebrows by choosing a French director and a film that nobody has seen over more acclaimed festival fare by native Chinese directors. Then in Thailand, the head of Thailand’s Film Academy politely noted that he was “very surprised” at his country’s decision to pick a fairly unassuming rom-com.

And in India, of course bitter rival directors complained and made unfair allegations about the selection of “Liar’s Dice” because...well...they weren’t selected themselves. This happens every year as Indian directors don’t seem to be capable of congratulating one another!

Omissions: The most surprising omission was the aforementioned “Harmony Lessons” from Kazakhstan. Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” and Berlinale winner “Black Ice” were probably too politically sensitive for China. Besides Zhang, two other directors previously recognized by Oscar were snubbed, namely Yoji Yamada for “Little House” (Japan) and Wei Te-sheng who produced “Kano” (Taiwan)

Also missing from the race: Korea’s monster hit “Roaring Currents” (I’m glad they didn’t pick it), Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs” (Taiwan), "The Last Executioner" (Thailand), popular Bollywood favorite "Queen" (India), and Middle East dramas "Palestine Stereo" (Palestine) and "Che" (Iran).

Last year's race: Last year, I saw 11 of the 22 films from the Asia-Pacific countries (the only region to record a drop in entries this year) and they were a good lot, netting three spots on the official shortlist. My personal favorite was Saudi Arabia’s “Wadjda” (A), which succeeds on so many different levels and also because it has such a good backstory. Also very strong: Afghanistan’s “Wajma” (A-), Australia’s “The Rocket” (A-), Cambodia’s “The Missing Picture” (B+), Iran’s “The Past” (A-) and Palestine’s “Omar” (A-). Honorable mention to Thailand’s wacky horror film “Countdown” (B+ for a horror film, but definitely not an Oscar candidate) and Singapore’s “Ilo Ilo” (B). Somewhat less successful were China’s “Back to 1942” (B-), Korea’s melodrama “Juvenile Offender” (B-) and Taiwan’s “Soul” (B), though none were bad films. I’ve recently acquired the DVDs from Hong Kong, India, Japan and New Zealand and look forward to adding those to the list.