Wednesday, December 16, 2015


With the unfortunate disqualification of AFGHANISTAN, there are 80 films contending for nine finalists slots. The six films that have the highest average scores from the "large committee" will automatically made the Final Nine. Then three more films will be selected from the "elite committee", which typically chooses more challenging, cerebral fare.

I expect the list will be announced on Friday, December 18, although it could be announced a day before or after.

In the past few weeks, we've seen some precursors announced:

Golden Globes: Belgium, Chile, Finland, France and Hungary
National Board of Review: Hungary, with runners-up Austria and Brazil and a special award for France
Critics Choice: Austria, Brazil, France, Hungary and Taiwan

Buzz for some countries has heated up (Chile, Finland, Iceland, South Africa) and for others cooled down (Guatemala, Portugal, Sweden, Taiwan). And of course, everyone is expecting "Son of Saul" to just walk away with this....

I've managed to see just 19 of the 80 films, but I have plans to see one more this weekend (Thailand) and three more before Christmas....But I wanted to publish this since the list may be announced as early as tomorrow. 

1. HUNGARY- "Son of Saul"
2. FRANCE- "Mustang"
3. DENMARK- "A War"
4. ICELAND- "Rams"
5. CHILE- "El club" (Elite Committee Save)
6. ARGENTINA- "El clan"
7. BELGIUM- "The Brand New Testament"
8. ISRAEL- "Baba Joon"
9. JORDAN- "Theeb"

10. BULGARIA- "The Judgement"
11. GERMANY- "Labyrinth of Lies" (Large Committee Only)
12. FINLAND- "The Fencer" (Large Committee Only)
13. TAIWAN- "The Assassin" (Elite Committee Only; Dear Elite Committee....This movie makes no sense....Please don't choose it for the Production Design alone)
14. BRAZIL- "The Second Mother" (Large Committee Only)
15. MEXICO- "600 Miles" (Large Committee Only)
16. ETHIOPIA- "Lamb"

17. COLOMBIA- "Embrace of the Serpent"  (Elite Committee Only)
18. AUSTRIA- "Goodnight Mommy" (Elite Committee Only)
19. NETHERLANDS- "Paradise Suite"
20. INDIA- "Court"
21. ROMANIA- "Aferim!" (Elite Committee Only)

22. KAZAKHSTAN- "The Stranger"
23. NORWAY- "The Wave"
24. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Home Care"
25. GUATEMALA- "Ixcanul"
26. SERBIA- "Enclave"
27. SOUTH AFRICA- "Two of Us"
28. SINGAPORE- "7 Letters"
29. SWEDEN- "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch..."
30. JAPAN- "100-Yen Love"
31. CHINA- "Go Away, Mr. Tumor"
32. ALBANIA- "Bota"

79. BANGLADESH- "Jalal's Story"
80. HONG KONG- "To the Fore"

Good luck to all the best films!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 20 Candidates from Western Europe, Canada and Israel

Here are the 20 films from the "Western" countries, including Canada and Israel. Today is December 14th and the last of the 81 nominees (Latvia and Thailand) will be screening today in Los Angeles. The 9-film shortlist should come out this Friday or next Monday. 

Though the Western European countries have traditionally dominated this category, last year was the first year in Oscar history that the region failed to get a single nomination. The closest were the mediocre dramas from the Netherlands and Sweden, which did manage to advance to the shortlist.


20. UNITED KINGDOM- "Under Milk Wood"
19. LUXEMBOURG- "Baby (a)lone"
18. GREECE- "Xenia"
17. SWITZERLAND- "Iraqi Odyssey"
16. CANADA- "Felix et Meira"

In a super-competitive year, these five films will have a hard time breaking through.

"Xenia" from GREECE looks like a Gregg Araki movie, with bright colors highlighting a sad story, surreal giant rabbits and a decidely "queer" POV. Araki is my favorite international director but movies like "Xenia" will be a hard-sell at the Oscars. In "Xenia" two orphaned brothers (roughly 16 and 19) search for their long-lost Greek father after the death of their Albanian mother. Reviewers say the movie is original and visually interesting but flawed and overlong.

Also a "hard sell" in any category are three-hour documentaries meaning that "Iraqi Odyssey" from SWITZERLAND is out of luck. Director Samir is Swiss but his family comes from Iraq and this film follows his attempt to research and follow the diaspora of his family who starting emigrating from Iraq in the 1920, and who now live on virtually every continent. Despite very good reviews, I can't see this very personal story advancing.

The same goes for CANADA's "Felix et Meira", the unlikely love story between a young Hasidic Jewish woman living a virtually cloistered life with her ultra-religious husband and their new baby, and a depressed French-Canadian man getting over the death of his father. Although Quebec is often a superpower in this category and although AMPAS often likes Jewish interest films, the film is dull and uninteresting and despite some very good reviews, reception has been decidedly mixed. I was extremely bored throughout, and never found the story very realistic. 

"Under Milk Wood" stars actor Rhys Ifans and singer Charlotte Church and is the first Welsh film to represent the UNITED KINGDOM since 2011. It was filmed simultaneously in a Welsh version that got a limited release in Wales in December 2014, and an English version that premiered in England in October 2015. It's a dark and poetic story about the residents of a village in rural Wales. Reviews (most of which apply to the English version) have mostly been underwhelming, praising the film's dark humor and visuals, but criticizing the langourous pace and some bawdy, childish humor. 

That leaves us with the obscure entry from LUXEMBOURG- "Baby (a)lone", about a pair of sociopathic teenagers who go on the run when the girl ends up pregnant. Described as dark and grim, the film looks quirky and interesting, like a prequel to "Natural Born Killers". But with zero buzz, zero awards and a lack of critical acclaim, it's a non-starter.

15. IRELAND- "Viva"
14. SPAIN- "Loreak"
13. ITALY- "Don't Be Bad"

These three are perfectly good films but nobody believes that they are good enough to make the final five. Let's take the Spanish-language film....No, it's not the one from Spain....It's the LGBT drama set in Cuba and representing the Republic of IRELAND- "Viva". I saw the film at BIFF and its an entertaining drama about a gay teen living on his own, when he is confronted by the unexpected return of his ex-con father, who has been in jail since he was a baby. The boy's struggle is compelling and the film features one of the best drag performances ever put to film (by straight actor Hector Medina, no less) but the father's arc is less well-done, and the film has an uncomfortable shift in tone midway through the film. The film from SPAIN- "Loreak" (Flowers) is the first film ever submitted to the Oscars in Basque (notable for being one of the only languages in the world with no known connection to any other language). I managed to see it on DVD and its a very subtle, well-made film about the lives of three women connected by an anonymously given bouquet of flowers. It's a very sweet, little film with a lot to say about contemporary relationships but it's so subtle, some people might find it just a teeny tiny eensy bit dull....

Finally, there's ITALY which chose "Don't Be Bad", a grim, drug-fueled crime drama about two low-life petty criminals and best friends trying to live the high life in early 1990s Rome. Director Claudio Caligari died shortly after filming wrapped and the film was likely chosen over "Mia madre" and "Leopardi" as a posthumous honor. Though it performed well at Venice, nobody is talking about it, it has barely been seen anywhere else, it features unlikable characters, and it is by far the most low-key Italian submission in years. It's also said to be quite a downer. 

Advancing to the next round would be a tall order for any of these three films. 

12. PORTUGAL- "Arabian Nights: Vol. 2: The Desolate One"
10. SWEDEN- "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch..."
8. AUSTRIA- "Goodnight, Mommy" 

Lots of people are talking about these three weird films making the 9-film shortlist. There is absolutely no chance the large committee will be susceptible to the charms of these oddballs pics for a number of reason, so they are all clinging to the possibility of being one of the three "elite saves". I think none of them will make it and here's why: 

Pity PORTUGAL, the unluckiest country in the Oscar race and the only major country in Europe that has never even made the shortlist stage. This year, Portugal had a dilemma. The most acclaimed film of the year was clearly Miguel Gomes' "Arabian Nights", but the six-hour plus magnum opus was released as three separate films, loosely based on the Arabian folktales, but set in Portugal amidst the recent financial crisis. Most critics agreed that "Volume 2" was the best, but they also agreed that it was not necessary to see Volume 1 first, it was advisable to do so. So, even if AMPAS did like this intellectual, anti-capitalist fairy tale, it will probably lose a bit without seeing the first one. That will be enough to knock them out of the running. 

I saw "Goodnight Mommy" from AUSTRIA fairly randomly at a horror/fantasy film festival here in Korea, not knowing that it would become one of the buzziest films of the year. "Mommy" focuses on two identical twins whose mother comes from the hospital, all bandaged up from some sort of accident (or is it plastic surgery?) The two boys believe that the mysterious, moody woman is not their mother, but an imposter....leading to all sorts of strange situations. Many believe this will be the WTF film on the shortlist this year, noting that "Dogtooth" indeed was saved in 2010/2011 and I cannot explain it. "Dogtooth" was daringly original, but also a terrible film. "Goodnight Mommy" is not a terrible film but it's not a great one either. I figured out the "twist" fairly early on, as it is one that has been employed in several films before (telling you which one would give it away). The beginning is fairly dull. The end is nauseatingly and unforgettably violent. Other than "Dogtooth", I don't see anything in AMPAS history that would make me believe that "Mommy" has a chance....

The same goes for SWEDEN, which chose Roy Andersson's "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence", the conclusion to what one reviewer called "the lowest-grossing trilogy of all time". Indeed, "Songs from the Second Floor" and "You the Living" (both terrible films) represented Sweden in 2000 and 2007 and the Academy sensibly ignored both of them. "Pigeon" is said to be more accessible than the other two (it couldn't possibly be less) but it still relies on a series of supposedly "comic", mostly silent and unrelated vignettes. Andersson recently said "Sweden was not that important" when accepting a European Film Award over the weekend, saying that Sweden doesn't seem to get his humor. I haven't seen "Pigeon", but I doubt America will either. It's true that there was no elite committee in 2000 or 2007 to save Andersson....but I think there will be no elite committee in 2015 that will save him either. 

11. NETHERLANDS- "Paradise Suite" 
9. NORWAY- "The Wave"
7. FINLAND- "The Fencer"

I haven't seen "The Fencer"- the shock Golden Globe nominee from FINLAND- although like the Irish film it would have been disqualified before 2006. The film is set in neighboring Estonia, with an Estonian cast speaking Estonian and has nothing whatsoever to do with Finland. Set during Soviet times, it's the story of a champion Soviet fencer who shows up in an Estonian town ostensibly to teach fencing, when he is actually fleeing the secret police. During his lessons, he has a profound effect on his impressionable Estonian students. It's a baity plot with plenty of potential for dramatic tension and Oscar loves movies about teachers. I was shocked by the Golden Globe nod (over "Wolf Totem", "El clan", "Dheepan" and others) because reviews have been positive but decidedly unenthusiastic, the film hasn't won any other awards anywhere and director Klaus Härö has had better reviewed films ("Mother of Mine") that haven't managed to make it to the next round. The larger committee could bite, as they often do with "solid but not great" films. It's in with a chance. 

Less likely is crowdpleaser "The Wave" from NORWAY, a high-octane disaster movie about a mountain avalanche that launches a huge tidal wave (is that the right word?) that terrorizes a small fjord community. It's said to be exciting....a word which very rarely describes foreign film nominees....but it's also a genre film filled with poorly developed characters. And while the CGI special effects are great by European standards, they may not impress those in Hollywood. Still, it's one of the films I'm excited to see......

Which brings us to the NETHERLANDS and "Paradise Suite". This is a multi-lingual and extremely timely tale of migrants, whose lives intersect in the Netherlands, including a Bulgarian woman forced into prostitution, three men from Bosnia, Serbia and Burkina Faso and a pair of Swedish expats. I haven't seen it but it looks slightly preachy and- once again- reviews are positive but unethusiastic...Hmm....Sounds like last year's short-listed "Accused", also from Holland, so maybe it has a chance after all!

6. ISRAEL- "Baba Joon" 
5. GERMANY- "Labyrinth of Lies"

Now we get to the real contenders....The Foreign Film Committee has always shown a strong interest in Jewish interest films, whether you're talking "Solomon & Gaenor", "The Counterfeiters" or the shortlisted "The Day My Parents Went on Vacation", and that may help these two very different films from Germany and Israel to progress. 

GERMANY has gone with a rather typical Oscar nominee, a lazy strategy that has helped them get to the next round with dull fact-based dramas like "Baader Meinhof Komplex" and "Sophie Scholl". "Labyrinth of Lies" is a post-WWII drama about a little-known time in German history (the 1960s) when the German state was covering up the Nazi histories of low-level and mid-level officials, in an effort to return to a state of normalcy. A courageous judicial crusader sets out to convict those who have gotten away with their crimes, but finds many in the bureaucracy would rather forget these atrocities happened. Its all very moving but the problem is that the film has actually gotten quite average reviews. It didn't win a single award at the German Lolas (though it was got five nominations, including Best Picture and Screenplay) and nobody seems excited by it. Anyway, it already secured a US release and it's a subject that AMPAS clearly likes hearing about and it may be the sort of "solid" film that makes it through on 8s and 9s with few high or low scores. 

ISRAEL's film- "Baba Joon"- on the other hand has barely made a blip on the international film radar, but it's a warm family drama that seems to be charming those few critics who do see it. Oscar sometimes goes for family dramas, often goes for Israeli cinema, and this film combines some of the best aspects of both. "Baba Joon" is about the lives of a large family of Iranian Jews living in Israel, who still speak Farsi and continue their Persian traditions. The central family conflict involves a hard-working father angry that his teenage son shows no interest in continuing the family business (a poultry farm) and an uncle visiting from America who encourages the son to take charge of his own destiny. These are all topics that will be easily accessible to an American movie audience, with just the right touch of exoticism. It's a potential dark horse. 

4. BELGIUM- "The Brand New Testament"
3. ICELAND- "Rams"
2. DENMARK- "A War"

The best film I've seen this year was BELGIUM's whimsical, beautiful, hilarious, sad, poignant, quirky "The Brand New Testament", an "Amelie"-style fantasy-comedy about a crass, blue-collar God living with his shy wife and headstrong 10-year old daughter in Brussels. Sick of her father destroying people's lives for his own amusement, his daughter sets out into the human world to follow in her brother's footsteps and find six new apostles (including a hired assassin, a wealthy socialite played by Catherine Deneuve and a dying transgender boy) to write the Brand New Testament. I'm so happy that "Testament" got a Golden Globe nomination because this is a beautiful film that needs to be seen. It might be too whimsical for Oscar, but it's a definite contender. 

I admit though that two Nordic films (both ignored by the Globes) have a slightly better chance. "Rams" from ICELAND is sure to appeal to the Committee's many, many older voters. It's about two elderly brothers who have lived next door to each other for decades in rural Iceland, raising sheep, but who have not spoken to each other in forty years. When a fatal contagious disease strikes, the Icelandic government forces the region's farmers to kill all of their beloved sheep, presenting the brothers with a dilemma. While I preferred "Testament", "Rams" is much more of a traditional Oscar film, with a lot of humor and pathos and a very memorable ending. Once again, I really think older voters will rank this film very highly. 

Last but not last, we have DENMARK's "A War"- about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, and their families on the homefront. More specifically, it's about an incident in Afghanistan that leads to charges of war crimes back home in the liberal Scandinavian kingdom.  With the involvement of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan nearing its 15th year, this is most certainly a topic that American audiences can relate to. Divided into two halves, I have a feeling this film will resonate and has a good chance at the Final Nine....certainly better than the other four Nordic countries. 

1. FRANCE- "Mustang"

Turkey''s "Mustang" has romped through the precursors, getting nominations at the Golden Globes and the European Film Awards, and winning a special award at the NBR. It's been warmly reviewed just about everywhere (with the notable exception of Turkey) and is said to be exactly the sort of culturally interesting yet accessible, "social drama" that the Oscars loves. I haven't seen the film (it was sold out in Busan) but it's about a relatively happy group of Turkish sisters who are forced into seclusion (and possibly into marriage) after their community gossips about them hanging out with the local boys. For good or for bad, everyone says it's just the sort of story of Islam that the West wants to see. For those of you who are confused like me about why this is representing France, apparently the Turkish-born director is a dual citizen who spent much of her life in France and made the film with French money. I think it's in. 

Now the Statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 22

Number of countries participating this year:  20.

Number of debuts: Zero

Number of countries opting out:  Two, but GREENLAND (population: 55,000) and MALTA (population: 400,000) probably didn’t have anything eligible.

Number of countries I predicted correctly:  Only 5- Belgium, Canada, Greece, Norway and Sweden. I also predicted “Mustang” to represent Turkey rather than France and “Arabian Nights: Volume I” to represent Portugal (they selected Volume II). And I changed Ireland at the last minute when it looked as if “Viva” would be released next year. Austria and Italy were quite a shock.

Already Seen: 7- Austria, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Iceland, Ireland and Spain, though I reluctantly plan to see the Swedish film before the end of the year. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Norwegian disaster drama "The Wave", which looks exciting.

Feature Debuts: 4- Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (Austria), Deniz Gamze Ergüven (France), Giulio Ricciarelli (Germany) and Yuval Delshad (Israel).

Number of Female Directors: Only 2!!! Turkish-born Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who is representing FRANCE and Austrian co-director Veronika Franz. Shocking!

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  72-year old Roy Andersson (Sweden) and “Goodnight Mommy” co-director Severin Fiala (Austria), who is 30. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: How globalization has changed this category! It’s a great year for minority languages, immigrant languages and making films outside national borders. Who would have thought that we’d see movies in Arabic (Switzerland), Basque (Spain), Estonian (Finland), Persian (Israel), Spanish (Ireland), Turkish (France) and Welsh (UK), not to mention the Dutch film, which purports to be in seven different immigrant languages! All in one year! Plus the Canadian film is partly in Hebrew and the Greek film is partly in Albanian.

Of course a few countries have chosen their “natural” language: 2 are in French (Belgium and Canada), 2 in German (Austria and Germany) plus one each in Danish, Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Letzeburgesch, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish.

Number of Comedies:  Two real comedies (Belgium and Sweden) plus "Rams", the Icelandic dramedy. 

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  One documentary from Switzerland

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: I'd say seven or eight. 

Highest profile film: Definitely “Mustang” from France, though Austrian horror film “Goodnight Mommy” has gotten a surprisingly amount of attention and buzz.

Oscar History:  Roy Andersson (Sweden) is in the race for the fourth time, having previously had “A Swedish Love Story” (way back in 1970), as well as “Songs from the Second Floor” and “You the Living”. Klaus Härö of Finland is also competing for the fourth time, after “Elina”, “Mother of Mine” and “Letters to Father Jacob”, all since 2003. Jaco Van Dormael (Belgium) was in the race twice before (1991 and 1996) for “Toto the Hero” and “The Eighth Day” which were both considered strong contenders for nominations. Also up for a second time: Miguel Gomes (Portugal) who directed the excruciatingly bad “Our Beloved Month of August” in 2008.

Ten countries have already won the Foreign Film Oscar, while seven more have been nominated. Only three have failed to make it to the next round- perennial bridesmaid PORTUGAL (which has the longest losing streak in the world) plus IRELAND and LUXEMBOURG who do not submit regularly.

Best & Worst Decisions:  BELGIUM chose my favorite film of the year, which I think was a good decision, as were the choices from Iceland and Israel. I think FRANCE should have chosen a more authentically French film, but they'll probably be nominated so it's really up to them. Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland probably made the wrong choices.

The jury is still out on AUSTRIA, whose made the controversial choice to send a violent, horror film. I think this was a bad move, although the Internet is pushing for a save, so maybe this was their best choice.

Controversies and Changes:  Of course there was some controversy over France choosing a decidedly "un-French" film and Austria choosing such a disturbingly violent film....But there were no real controversies. 

Germany seemed to want to send "Victoria", although there was some concern about its eligibility since its about a Spanish woman in Germany who speaks broken English. Germany calculated roughly 53% of the dialogue was in German and Spanish (but what language is Spanglish?!) and wondered aloud if that was enough. 

Omissions: The Western Europeans have plenty to choose from, so of course there were lots of snubs, the most serious of which was Bille August’s family tearjerker “Silent Heart” (Denmark), which was considered an early Oscar contender. Denmark probably had the best film year of any country on the list, making their decision to select only one film particularly difficult. Even though “Dheepan” won the Palme d’Or, it was considered by many to be a long-shot for France because it was filmed in Tamil….that is, before it lost to a film in Turkish!  Nanni Moretti’s “Mia madre” (Italy) was also a shock absentee from the list, losing in what was probably a sentimental decision to posthumous gangster drama “Don’t Be Bad”.  And in another run of bad luck for the black comedies I love, the Netherlands opted for a special Oscar-qualifying release for “Paradise Suite” instead of selecting “The Surprise” (by the director of Oscar-winning “Karakter”) or “Schneider vs. Bax”, denting their chances for an international release.

Also failing to get past Round One: “Amour Fou” (Austria), Oscar winner Susanne Bier’s “A Second Chance” (Denmark), “Marguerite” (France), Oscar nominee Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “13 Minutes” (Germany), “Virgin Mountain” (Iceland), “Magical Girl” (Spain) and Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry’s “Trash” (UK).

Familiar Faces:  Of course, the most familiar face is Catherine Deneuve who co-stars in the Belgian submission as an apostle of God's daughter who falls in love with a gorilla at the zoo. Yes, really! Runner-ups are Welsh actor Rhys Ifans ("The Amazing Spiderman", "Notting Hill") and singer/talk-show host Charlotte Church who co-star in the drama from Wales. 

Also familiar: Yolande Moreau (Belgium), Pilou Asbaek ("Lucy", Denmark) and Jorge Perugorria ("Strawberry and Chocolate", Ireland)

Last year's race:  Last year, I saw 10 of the 21 films submitted. Though I have often expressed my disdain for the Dardenne Brothers, my favorite film last year was “Two Days, One Night” from Belgium (A), which failed to be nominated, though Marion Cotillard did get nominated for Best Actress. I also saw “Human Capital” (A), “Gett” (A-), “Mommy” (A-), “The Dark Valley” (B+/B), “Accused” (B), “The Circle” (B), “Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed” (B-), “Force Majeure (C) and “1001 Grams” (C-). Next on my viewing list: "Simshar" on VOD.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 20 Candidates from the Latin America, Africa and the Arab World

Here are the twenty nominees from Africa, Latin America and the Arab World:

20. MOROCCO- "Aida"
19. SOUTH AFRICA- "Thina Sobabili: The Two Of Us"
18. LEBANON- "Void"
17. PARAGUAY- "Cloudy Times" (El tiempo nublado)
16. PALESTINE- "The Wanted 18"

With the Latin American films so strong this year, the bottom tier here includes most of the African and Arab films, plus debutante Paraguay.

For the second year in a row, the biggest long-shot comes from MOROCCO, which has selected an obscure drama out of left field that virtually nobody has seen or heard of. “Aida” is the story of a Jewish-Moroccan emigrée in France who returns to her Moroccan homeland when she learns she has terminal cancer. There, it seems, she reconnects with an old lover. There’s virtually no information on it online, but the one review I read was unkind, citing bizarre tonal shifts (focusing on cancer, then romance) and factual misrepresentations of the Jewish community. It also has the lowest rating on IMDB of this particular group (beating only Australia and Russia worldwide). It’s not a contender.

Lebanon and South Africa have selected films by up-and-coming 20-something directors just starting out their careers. The Zulu-language “The Two of Us” is a heart-wrenching drama about two siblings struggling to survive in modern-day SOUTH AFRICA. The overprotective brother resorts to petty crime; the sister to prostitution. Filmed in seven days as a master’s thesis project, “Two of Us” was made under severe budgetary constraints. A film like this won’t threaten for a nomination. Similarly, “Void” from LEBANON is a collaboration of seven young directors from the country’s Notre Dame University. The film tells six separate stories of Lebanese women suffering from the disappearances of male relatives (sons, husbands, brothers etc.) during Lebanon’s long civil war. Once again, I’m sure it’s a good film but even a Lebanese film expert I spoke to admitted that it’s not an Oscar contender. It should just be proud to represent Lebanon in the race.

Palestine and Paraguay have selected documentaries; never an easy sell in this category. “Cloudy Times” beat out the favored biopic “Mangore” to be the first-ever submission from the South American nation of PARAGUAY. It’s said to be a well-made documentary, but a claustrophobic and difficult watch. It follows director Arami Ullon’s efforts to care for her increasingly ill mother who suffers from Alzheimers. PALESTINE goes a bit lighter with animated documentary “The Wanted 18”, about Israel’s efforts to destroy a Palestinian town’s cattle herd, allegedly because the cows made the town too self-sufficient. I understand it was initially made in English but also dubbed into Arabic and Hebrew versions for theatrical release. Incorporating Claymation cows and real-life interviews, this is a quirky and well-reviewed film, but perhaps a little too “outside the box” to score here. You can see the English-language version on iTunes.  

15. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- "Sand Dollars" (Dólares de arena)
14. COSTA RICA- "Imprisoned" (Presos)
13. URUGUAY- "A Moonless Night" (Una Noche Sin Luna)
12. VENEZUELA- "Gone With the River" (Dauna, lo que lleva el río)

These four films hail from Latin America’s smaller film-making nations. Despite good reviews, I believe they are all way too "small" to seriously make the next round. As they always do, URUGUAY has submitted a low-key comedy-drama showcasing their droll national sense of humor. “A Moonless Night” follows three lonely people who find themselves in a small town on New Year’s Eve (summertime in Uruguay). Though it won the 2014 Zurich Film Festival, there wasn’t much competition and it won’t stand out here. Lesbian drama “Sand Dollars” from the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC  is also too low-key to score here. Most reviewers (including me) were wowed by the fearless performance of Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a Caucasian “sugar-mommy” who falls in love with a (straight?) local Dominican girl in a tourist town. The film is good, but it’s more notable for the lead performance than anything else. COSTA RICA has “Imprisoned” (Presos), a local box-office hit (#2 in the country’s history) about a young woman who falls in love with a prison inmate. It was also praised for its strong performances, but with little buzz, it will likely get lost in the mix of 80 foreign films. As for VENEZUELA, they’ve chosen an interesting drama in the indigenous language of Warao, spoken by just 30,000 people along the northeastern coast. It’s about a Warao woman torn between her family and the traditions of her culture on the one hand, and her desire to get a modern education and a job in the city on the other. Using four actresses, it follows the course of her life over several decades. All four: good but not good enough. 


11. COTE D'IVOIRE- "Run"
10. ALGERIA- "Crepuscule des ombres" (Twilight of Shadows)
9. PERU- "NN"
8. MEXICO- "600 Miles" (600 Millas)

The COTE D’IVOIRE rejoins the Oscar race after a 40-year absence with “Run”, an exciting thriller about a young man who has just assassinated an unnamed African country’s Prime Minister-cum-dictator. As he tries to escape, he reflects on the moments in his life that brought him to this moment in time. In terms of remake potential, this film ranks near the top, but even “Run Lola Run” couldn’t score a nomination in this category and while reviews have been positive, most critics note this is definitely the work of a debutante director. It premiered at Cannes 2014 and has had a healthy run internationally since then. Welcome back, to Cote d’Ivoire! I can’t wait to see the film.

MEXICO has also chosen a thriller, albeit a slightly more cerebral one. Co-starring Tim Roth as an American ATF agent kidnapped by a Mexican gun runner working for a powerful gang, I thought the film would have too much English to qualify. In this unorthodox road movie, the two men strike up an unlikely friendship during the 600 mile-journey to the gang's headquarters. “600 Miles” sounds promising and AMPAS likes movies that espouse liberal causes (gun control) and that feature comforting amounts of English dialogue (a break from subtitles), but none of Mexico’s border dramas (“Miss Bala”, “Backyard”) have been nominated yet. Reviews for "600 Miles" haven’t been quite strong enough to make it to the next round. PERU’s “NN” has no buzz but those that have seen it say it’s quite a powerful film. It’s about forensics experts who exhume a mass grave of bodies that appear to have been killed during Peru’s military dictatorship. It’s a cold, grim film and American audiences may lack the political background to fully understand it. 

The same may prove true for ALGERIA and “Twilight of Shadows”. Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina won the Palme d’Or at Cannes way back in 1975 and he came out of retirement to make this film focusing on three opposing personalities during Algeria’s war of independence: a brutal French commander, an Algerian freedom fighter, and a young French soldier sympathetic to the Algerian cause. The film sounds great, but there is zero buzz and the film has failed to screen at any major film festivals despite Lakhdar-Hamina’s name and reputation. Though the desert filmmaking may impress, the anti-colonial rhetoric and Algerian politics may confuse. 

7. GUATEMALA- "Ixcanul"
6. ETHIOPIA- "Lamb"
5. COLOMBIA- "Embrace of the Serpent"

I was lucky enough to see all three of these cultural odysseys at the Busan International Film Festival in October. All three of them are a fascinating window into cultures that we know little about in the West. All three also have a passionate fan base (especially Colombia). Ultimately, I’m not sure any of them can make it to the next round, but they could surprise. Will the elite committee decide to choose "one" or will they all cancel each other out? I’m not sure why, but these sort of cultural films seem to have lost favor in recent years. 

ETHIOPIA’s “Lamb” is easily the most entertaining film of the bunch,- a coming-of-age drama with a likable child protagonist, beautifully filmed vistas and an engaging family of interesting characters. Ephraim’s father is forced to leave his young son with distant relatives after the death of the boy’s mother. The boy brings his beloved pet lamb along, but it soon becomes clear that his pet is set to become part of an upcoming holiday feast.

COLOMBIA's "Embrace of the Serpent" is much more work. Filmed in black and white, primarily in four indigenous languages and telling two separate stories about encounters between Western explorers and indigenous people forty years apart, it poses thought-provoking questions and yet still remains accessible. It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking though I wonder if the B&W photography (which not everyone likes) and the subject matter may be too “challenging” for the Academy. It would certainly be a deserving first nominee for Colombia. I think “Serpent” has the edge over the Kakchikel-language “Ixcanul”, a drama from GUATEMALA about a bored Mayan teenager betrothed to the son of a wealthy landlord who becomes pregnant by another man. Filmed almost documentary-style, it’s a much smaller film than the other two and despite equally strong reviews and an arguably stronger character arc, it has a weaker chance than the other two.  It's Guatemala's first submission in twenty years and will likely place just outside the shortlist. 

4. BRAZIL- "The Second Mother"
3. JORDAN- "Theeb"
2. CHILE- "El club"

These three films are definitely threats for the shortlist. Let’s look at the Pros and Cons:

Summary: A 10-year old Bedouin boy is forced to fend for himself against bandits in the deserts of 1915 Arabia. Second-ever submission from the Kingdom of Jordan.
Pros: Beautifully filmed desert scenery. Was a critical success during its limited US release. Oscar loves movies about kids, and this is definitely an original take on that genre. Survival drama accessible to all. Best Director, Venice Horizons.
Cons: As a filmmaking nation, Jordan is relatively unknown. The film's ending raises questions.

Summary: A hard-working Brazilian maid has a reasonably comfortable life living with a wealthy family and their 17-year old son, but things turn chaotic when her estranged daughter moves herself in. 
Pros: Audiences seem to adore the film and the performance by the lead actress. Accessible family drama. Already released in the US. Two awards at Berlinale 2015.
Cons: Though Americans can certainly understand the “class differences”, many brasileiros fear much of the nuance will be lost outside of Brazil. Some complain that the film is “good” but by no means “great”. The committee almost never chooses female-driven pics in this category.

Summary: A counselor visits a group of disgraced priests and nuns sequestered in a remote location until their crimes are investigated by the church. 
Pros: Silver Bear in Berlin 2015. Director Pablo Larrain has already found favor with the Academy for “No”. Juicy subject matter, critically acclaimed.

Cons:  Some critics say the dark drama is “smart” but “not mainstream”. Catholic child abuse already covered this year with “Spotlight”

Bottom Line: Everybody's in with a chance, with CHILE an especially strong contender to get "saved", JORDAN staying strong and BRAZIL losing buzz to COLOMBIA

1. ARGENTINA- "El clan"

Once again, the clear front-runner from this region is ARGENTINA, the only Latin American country ever to win the Foreign Film Oscar (twice). “El clan” is a crime-thriller (the last time Argentina sent one of these, they won) based on a horrific true story that shocked the nation. In the early 1980s, the wealthy, upper-class Puccio family kidnapped, ransomed and murdered several of their wealthy neighbors. The film has won awards at arthouse festivals (Best Director, Venice), and yet is mainstream enough to be a box-office hit in Argentina, and though it is chilling and violent, I’ve heard it is not too much so that it will scare off conservative Oscar voters. This one is probably in. 

Now the Statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 36

Number of countries participating this year:  20, not including Panama which announced a film (Caja 25) that ultimately failed to appear on the list. 

Number of debuts: 1- Paraguay

Number of countries opting out:  Technically 16, but PUERTO RICO is no longer invited and ten (mostly African) other countries have only ever sent films once or twice.

The surprise absentees were BOLIVIA, CUBA, ECUADOR and EGYPT (who all sent films last year) plus NICARAGUA. Official selection committees from Bolivia and Cuba DID MEET but both announced that they had formally decided not to send any of the eligible films being considered. Apparently in Bolivia, the National Film Board emphasized the importance of sending a film, but the selection committee still said no. (why?!) Even more surprising was the absence of Egypt which has sent films fairly regularly as of late and which had also announced the formation of a selection committee that would choose a film after Eid....but then made no further announcement. No idea what happened there. 

Number of countries I predicted correctly:  13 out of 20! Very successful! Out of Latin America, I missed only Mexico (thinking "600 Miles" had too much English), Peru and the documentary from Paraguay. 

Already Seen: 5- Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Jordan

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing: "El club" from CHILE

Feature Debuts: Lots. In addition to the seven Lebanese student directors, ten others are making their feature film debuts- Jayro Bustamante, Mario Crespo (I think), Philippe Lacôte, Ernest Nkosie, Naji Abu Nowar, Gabriel Ripstein, Amer Shomali, Germán Tejeira, Arami Ullon and Yared Zeleke.

Number of Female Directors: Four of the films are directed or co-directed by women, including three from Latin America: Anna Muylaert (Brazil), Laura Amelia Guzman (Dominican Republic) and Arami Ullón (Paraguay). The Lebanese submission, "Void" is an omnibus co-directed by three women (Christelle Ighniades, Maria Abdl Karim and Zeina Makki) and four men. The disqualified Panamian film was also co-directed by two women.

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  85-year old Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina of ALGERIA came out of retirement to make "Crespuscule des ombres". The youngest directors are the seven co-directors of LEBANON's "Void", who range in age from 23 to 28. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Obviously, eight of the films are mostly in Spanish but what's interesting is that three of the Spanish-speaking countries chose films that are mostly in indigenous languages- Kaqchikel (Guatemala), Warao (Venezuela) and Cuveo (alongside a number of indigenous Amazon languages, in the Colombian film). This is great news for indigenous communities.

We also have two films made in Arabic (Lebanon and Jordan), plus one each in Amharic, French, Portuguese and Zulu. The Algerian and Moroccan films seem to be roughly 50-50 Arabic/French. The animated Palestinian film seems to have been made in English but dubbed into several world languages, including an Arabic version screened by AMPAS and Hebrew.

Number of Comedies:  The closest thing to a comedy is Uruguay's dramedy "A Moonless Night"

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  One animated documentary (Palestine) plus two standard documentaries from Panama (disqualified) and Paraguay. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Quite a few. Definitely seven.

Highest profile film: Probably Brazil's "The Second Mother", though Argentina might disagree. 

Oscar History:  Five of the directors have been here before, including Pablo Larrain (Chile) who got an Oscar nomination for "No" and also competed with "Tony Manero". The others are Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (Algeria) who competed in 1975, 1982 and 1987, Ciro Guerra (Colombia), who competed in 2005 and 2009 ("Wandering Shadows" and "The Wind Journeys"), Esteban Ramírez (Costa Rica) in 2005 ("Caribe") and Pablo Trapero (Argentina) in 2008 and 2010 ("Leonera" and "Carancho"),

Four countries (Algeria, Argentina, South Africa and, bizarrely, Cote d'Ivoire) have won the Oscar, while five more (Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Palestine and Peru) have racked up nominations. 

Best & Worst Decisions: All the Latin Americans chose well, except for the aforementioned Bolivians and Cubans who snubbed all their submitted films. MOROCCO and SOUTH AFRICA probably made the worst choices. 

Controversies and Changes:  Documentary "Caja 25" was announced as the official selection of PANAMA, beating out one other film (a surfing documentary). However, the film was mysteriously absent from the final list, and (unlike "Wolf Totem" and "Utopia") I haven't been able to find any official explanation online.

Omissions:   It's a bad year for black comedies. Like with Hungary's "Liza the Fox Fairy", I was really hoping we'd see the uproarious, violent beauty pageant satire "3 Beauties" in the race, especially after it won Best Venezuelan Film at their national film festival. But it lost to more serious fare. Also omitted: "Paulina" (La patota) from Argentina, "Land and Shade" from Colombia, "The Vanished Elephant" from Peru, "Treurgrond" from South Africa and "The Thin Yellow Line" (Mexico). 

Familiar Faces:  Clearly the biggest name is Oscar nominee Tim Roth, who co-stars in “600 Miles” as an American DEA agent, though 71-year old Geraldine Chaplin (“Dr. Zhivago”) is arguably equally accomplished. I’m also a fan of Belgium’s Jan Bijvoet (“Borgman”) who co-stars in Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent”. Other than these three gringos, the stars of the Argentine (Guillermo Francella, “The Secret in Their Eyes”) and Chilean films (Alfredo Castro, “Tony Manero”) may be familiar to fans of Latin American cinema.

Last year's race:  Last year, these countries sent a total of 21 films. I saw the two Oscar nominees, which were definitely deserving- ARGENTINA's "Wild Tales" (A) and MAURITANIA's "Timbuktu" (A)- as well as the much maligned "Cantinflas" (B+) from MEXICO which I thought was quite good. Less interesting were BRAZIL's "The Way He Looks" (B) and URUGUAY's disappointing "Mr. Kaplan" (B-).