Thursday, July 30, 2015


UPDATE 13-AUG-2015: The Paraguayans are coming! Paraguay announced that they will enter the Oscar race for the first time in 2015. They'll announce their Oscar pick on Saturday, August 29th. 

And here's Group Four, including many of Oscar's smaller and more obscure countries. Only two of them (Netherlands and Poland) have ever won the Oscar and only a few more (Mexico, Norway and Palestine) have gotten multiple nominations.

1. MACEDONIA- "The Liberation of Skopje"  I visited Macedonia on vacation in May and it was wonderful. FYI, it should not be called FYROM unless you are a slave to the foreign policy of The Former Euro Republic of Greece. Despite some political turmoil (there were protests to bring down the government while I was there), the Macedonians have about a half dozen films to choose from this year. I predict they’ll send “The Liberation of Skopje” directed by and starring Serbian actor Rade Šerbedžija (“Mission Impossible 2”, “Harry Potter 7”, “24” etc.) who recently acquired Macedonian citizenship. Based on a beloved Yugoslavian play, it’s about WWII Macedonia seen through the eyes of an 8-year old boy. It hasn’t premiered yet, but the Macedonians often get their Oscar submissions screened at the very last minute. This has happened three out of the past four years. If "Liberation" doesn’t premiere in time, count on a victory for “Honey Night” by Ivo Trajkov (who repped Macedonia twice in 2004 and 2009) which kicked off the Skopje International Film Festival in April. Taking place on a single night during the early days of independence, it’s a marital drama with political overtones. A wire-tapping subplot in the film has coincided with a real-life government wiretapping scandal so things may also depend on who’s in power when the Macedonians make  their decision this summer! Less likely: “Children of the Sun”, a love story set against the background of an organized crime gang; it won Best Film at the Macedonian Film Festival in Toronto. Unlikely: psychological thriller “Three Days in September” and “Lazar”, about an ex-con trying to go straight. Macedonia tends to like period dramas, so if "Liberation" gets released, it's pretty much a sure thing. 

2. MALAYSIA- "Ophilia" Malaysia has only sent one film in the past ten years (action-thriller “Bunohan”) and they don’t have any standout films that would make me believe they’d enter again this year. Among the possibilities they do have are UFO-chasing comedy “Nova” (winner of the ASEAN International Film Festival) and ghost-chasing comedy “Men Who Save the World” (Busan, Locarno), which treads some tricky racial lines with its plot (I haven’t seen it, but it's about a group of Malay villagers who think there is a black ghost haunting the village), as well as gangland crime drama “Ophilia” and sentimental romance “Pilot Café”. I don’t see any of them as likely. Prediction: they send nothing, but if they send anything it will be “Ophilia”, followed by “Men Who Save the World”.

3. MALTA- "Do Re Mi" Malta joined the Oscar race for the first time last year with sea tragedy “Simshar”. I’ve only seen one Maltese film in my life and it was terrible (“Kont diga”) but I look forward to seeing "Simshar" and others. Tiny Malta is a popular filming location for European and Hollywood productions but the indigenous film industry is tiny, and the bilingual islands produce many of their films in English. Their only option this year is the intriguing “Do Re Mi Fa”, about the disturbing and lonely lives of four people- an aging actress, an arrogant radio DJ, a career-driven TV employee and a pedophile clown who performs at children’s parties. It’s in both Maltese and English and I’m not sure if it is over 50% in Maltese. But it’s Malta’s only shot.

4. MAURITANIA- Nothing eligible. Last year, Mauritania submitted Abderrahmane Sissako’s brilliant “Timbuktu”, garnering a nomination for the poor, French-speaking North African country. Although they deserved to win the award, they were passed over by a dreary film from Poland, possibly because it mentioned the Holocaust. Other than M. Sissako, Mauritania has no cinematic tradition and even M. Sissako himself is a French citizen who spent much of his life in Mali, where the film “Timbuktu” takes place. Interestingly enough, “Timbuktu” dominated this year’s French Cesar Awards because France considered the film to be wholly French with minimal Mauritanian input. I’m happy that AMPAS has loosened up the rules to allow films like “Timbuktu” to compete. But it’s highly unlikely Mauritania will be back until M. Sissako makes a new movie. He doesn’t have one this year so nothing is eligible.

5. MEXICO- "Desierto" The big problem with Mexico this year is that it is so difficult to know what is eligible. Will new festival films like “The Chosen Ones” (Las eligidas) from Cannes and “Carmin tropical” be released in Mexico, or will they be eligible next year? Will bilingual films like “600 Miles” (with Tim Roth) and US-coproduction “Desierto” (with Gael Garcia Bernal) contain enough Spanish to qualify? And most importantly, what will Mexico do with “The Perfect Dictatorship”? The political satire was a major critical and financial success in Mexico last year. It was submitted last year for the Oscars and was sent to the Goyas but it didn’t release at home until October 2014. Could it be reconsidered a second time? Assuming it was eligible, I think “The Perfect Dictatorship” could win this easily. However, I doubt Mexico will allow the film to have “two bites of the apple”, as we say in the USA (I heard vampire movie “Let the Right One In” tried this strategy in Sweden a few years back; Sweden said NO). So, with “Dictatorship” and this year’s Goya winner- slacker comedy “Gueros”- not eligible (“Gueros” was also submitted last year though it didn’t open wide until 2015), Mexico’s choices are a bit thinner, but they still have half a dozen worthy contenders. In fact, I think seven films are in with a chance, namely (in alphabetical order): “Carmin tropical”, “The Chosen Ones” (Las eligidas), “The Dark Springs” (Las oscuras primaveras), “Desierto”, “One for the Road” (En el último trago), “The Thin Yellow Line” (La Delgada Línea Amarilla) and “La tirisia” (aka "Perpetual Sadness"). Mexico’s longlist usually has about twenty films, so you can also expect to see LGBT anthology “Four Moons” (Cuatro Lunas), documentary “Echo of the Mountain” (Eco de la montaña) and Beijing Film Festival winner “Beginning of Time” (El Comienzo del Tiempo) but they won’t really compete for the Oscars. So, which one will Mexico pick? If you exclude last year’s biopic “Cantinflas”, Mexico likes their films grim, depressing and hopeless. That bodes well for “The Chosen Ones” and “Desierto”. “The Chosen Ones” (Cannes) focuses on a group of poor women who are kidnapped by a gang and forced into a life of sexual slavery/prostitution. “Desierto” (Toronto 2015), which I am told is mostly in Spanish, focuses on the U.S. border (the subject of their 2009, 2011 and 2013 submissions). Gael Garcia Bernal leads a group trying to crossover to the US, while escaping a fanatical American vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. It’s the sophomore effort of Jonas Cuaron (son of Oscar winner Alfonso). It seems likely the more exciting “Desierto” may go to the Oscars while the more arty “Chosen Ones” will go to the Goyas. In third place, “Thin Yellow Line”, starring Oscar nominee Damian Alcazar and produced by Oscar nominee Guillermo del Toro, about a group of workmen doing manual labor on a highway. In fourth place, “Carmin Tropical”, a mystery about a transsexual woman who returns to her hometown and becomes involved with solving the murder of another trans friend of hers. I would love to predict boisterous comedy “One for the Road” (which would probably do very well with AMPAS), about a group of 80-something friends who go on a road trip to fulfill their friend’s last wish, but the humorless Mexican Academy will be immune to its charms. I place it fifth. Not every likes erotic drama "Dark Springs" and the well-reviewed "La tirisia" (Karlovy Vary) may be too small to represent Mexico. 

6. MOLDOVA, a small Romanian-speaking republic in Eastern Europe, began submitting films to the Oscars two years ago. Last year they had two eligible films (“What A Wonderful World” and Oscar submission “The Unsaved”) but this year I think they have none. Not to worry as this year has seen a lot of positive developments. Last year, a new film law was passed slashing Soviet-era red tape and making it easier for filmmakers to get government funding. A National Film Center is due to be established this year. The Moldovans had a short student film at Cannes (“Echoes”) which competed in a Romanian sidebar, and an interesting new project (“How Far is Europe?) was pitched at Tallinn Black Nights. Moldovan filmmakers were also invited to participate alongside their Romanian counterparts at training workshops at the Transylvanian Film Festival. I think Moldova will be out of luck in 2015 but expect them back next year.

7. MONGOLIA- "Khuden" (Mist) Mongolia has been absent from the Oscar race for a decade despite a small but growing film industry. The movie "Father" (Aav), which opened in May, was the big winner at the Mongolian Film Awards this year, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It appears to be about a gangster raising a young daughter, but I'm not really sure. More likely to have the English subtitles required to send the film to the Oscars is “Huden” (Mist), which appears to be some sort of thriller about a rural family involved in a murder. It opened the Ulaanbaatar Film Festival but only managed a single win (Best Supporting Actress) at the Mongolian Oscars. There's also “Tutu”, about an aspiring ballet dancer who gets involved in political intrigue after returning home from her studies in Russia. None of these really look like a suitable Oscar contender…But I’d give the edge to “Khuden”. 

8. MONTENEGRO- "Gorcilo" Montenegro was the smallest of the former Yugoslav republics. This seaside country of less than a million people first entered the Oscar race in 2013 and again in 2014, sending crime thrillers both times. Their next Oscar submission will probably be “Time Between Us”, a drama set amidst the closing days of World War II, when a father is searching for his (presumed dead) son. It won financing from the Montenegrin government and the Sarajevo Film Festival. It's not scheduled to be released until 2016. This year, I only know of one Montenegrin film that has actually been released- culture clash comedy “Gorcilo”, about a new road that connects a remote village to the city- but reviews have not been great and I'm not sure Montenegro will think enough of it to send it in. We'll see! 

9. MOROCCO- "Fevers" Morocco is one of only three regular participants from Africa (alongside Egypt and South Africa). Like the country itself, Moroccan films are a mix of French and Arabic influences with very little from what the world thinks of as African. The hardest thing about predicting Morocco is that movies often sit on the shelf for months or even years before being released in local cinemas. For example, “Le sac de farine” (starring Hiam Abbass) premiered at the Tangier Film Festival in January 2012, but didn’t get a national release until April 2014. Neither last year’s winner at the Moroccan Film Festival (“Sotto Voce”) nor this year’s winner (“The Narrow Frame of Midnight”) seem to have been released in Moroccan cinemas (nor was my prediction last year, “Adios Carmen”), although any could conceivably get a summer release. My prediction this year is “Fevers”, winner of Best Picture at the FESPACO Film Festival of African Cinema and also the Moroccan representative in Abu Dhabi. It’s the story of a troubled Moroccan teenager sent to live with his father in France after his mother is sent to jail. The Moroccan Academy is often inclined to send movies about social issues, especially troubled youth. It appears to have gotten a limited release in Morocco last fall. If the Moroccan Academy doesn’t go for “Fevers”, there are a trio of strong contenders. The aforementioned “The Narrow Frame of Midnight” won Best Picture at the National Festival of Film in 2015, and also played at Dubai and Toronto. This moody story of a girl on the run from a gang of kidnappers has Danny Glover as a celebrity producer, but poor reviews outside of Morocco. “Blind Musicians” was the only Moroccan film in the main competition at the Marrakech Film Festival. Set in the 1970s, it features a father-son team during a time when blind musicians were often hired to perform at events for women. Last, there’s “Adios Carmen” (which I predicted last year), about the relationship between a young boy and a Spanish emigree living in Morocco in the 1970s. A possible dark horse is the upcoming 1970s drama “Other Side of the Sky” revolving around a poet and a bank robbery, which won Best Screenplay at the Moroccan Film Festival. Two well-made movies about prostitution- “Pillow Secrets” and “Grains de grenade”- will probably be too controversial, as will the banned “Much Loved” by Nabil Ayouch (also about prostitution) and “The Sea Behind” (transgenders). I bet on “Fevers”, with “Blind Musicians” as runner-up.

10. NEPAL- "Talakjung vs. Tulke" Nepal closed all its cinemas and canceled all film shoots for nearly two months after the April 2015 earthquake while the country was in mourning. That effectively puts the country at a bit of a disadvantage this year. However, the Oscars present Nepal with an excellent opportunity to promote new talent in their film industry. This year, I see two front-runners: “Bhimdatta” is a historical biopic of a renowned peasant revolutionary (though that may be too political). “Talakjung vs. Tulke” is a story of revenge and caste differences, set during the Nepali Civil War in the late 1990s. I don’t know much about the Nepali film industry, but dark horses could also include “Chankhe, Shankhe, Pankhe”, an expensive Bollywood-style comedy, orphanage drama “Highway to Dhampus” (which has good reviews but an American director and lots of English), and the unusual “Love You Baba”, which recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records for its youngest-ever 8-year old director Saugat Bista. I predict “Talakjung vs. Tulke” will represent the ex-Kingdom at this year’s Oscars, unless there’s a strong late release I don’t know about.

11. THE NETHERLANDS- "The Surprise" Lately, the Dutch seem to be specializing mostly in family films (as they always have) and comedies. Their two major national film prizes were awarded to somewhat strange choices this year. The Golden Calf for Best Picture went to “How to Avoid Everything” (known in Dutch as “Aanmodderfakker”….Try and say it out loud), a comedy about a 32-year old slacker who falls for a teenage babysitter. The Rembrandt Award for Best Picture went to “Vipers Nest 2”, a comedy sequel based on a TV show about a group of rich, trashy women. I’m not saying either of these are bad films (“Aanmodderfakker” looks quite entertaining), but they’re not the sort of film that will get anywhere with AMPAS. For Oscar, I think the Netherlands will choose either big-budget 16th century action movie “Admiral”, co-starring Rutger Hauer and Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”), or “The Surprise”, this year's best comedy about suicide. The Netherlands last won an Oscar in 1997/1998 for 38-year old Mike van Diem’s feature film debut, “Character”. Despite his big Oscar success, van Diem never did direct another movie....until now. “The Surprise” is about a depressed millionaire who signs a contract to end his life. When he falls in love with a suicidal woman who signed the same agreement, they both find it’s difficult to get out of the deal. The sheer size and scale of seafaring drama “Admiral” means it’s probably going to get in, but I’m predicting a surprise for “The Surprise”. In third place: I would love to see this go to “Schneider vs. Bax”, a black comedy about a hit man encountering a bizarre series of problems getting his latest job done. Director Alex van Warmerdam did “Borgman”, which I loved. Rounding out the Top Five choices for Holland: #4- “Prince”, a drama-thriller about an Arab-Dutch teen who seeks to impress a pretty Dutch girl already engaged to a gangster. It won a special award for youth film in Berlin, and #5-  “Zurich”, about a young widow who discovers her husband had a second family. Less likely: music biopic “Blood, Sweat and Tears” (aka “Andre Hazes”) got great reviews but will probably be too local to be selected and the Serbian-language “The Sky Above Us" may not be considered Dutch enough. 

12. NEW ZEALAND- Nothing eligible. New Zealand has sent films in indigenous Pacific languages three of the past four years. This year, I don’t they have anything eligible in a foreign language. The only Maori film I’ve been able to find information about in 2015 was a 15-minute short comedy called “Ow What!”. That may change next year with the release of crowd-funded Maori tale “The Patriarch” (in English and Maori). But for this year, I just don’t think the Kiwis have anything to send.

13. NICARAGUA- "The Naked Screen" (La pantalla desnuda) Nicaragua rarely produces feature films, but French expatriate director Florence Jaugey made “La Yuma” in 2010, which was a major hit and which was their first Oscar submission in 22 years. This year, Jaugey is back with “The Naked Screen” (La Pantalla Desnuda), a topical drama about a teenage girl whose boyfriend pressures her into making a sexual video on his camera-phone, which is then stolen by a kid from the neighborhood. “Screen” hasn’t been as strongly received as “La Yuma”, but it looks interesting and is probably their only eligible film.

14. NORWAY- "The Wave" Norway traditionally releases a three-film shortlist before selecting their national nominee. This hasn’t been a particularly strong year for Norwegian cinema and I predict the Norwegian shortlist will be: incest drama “Homesick”, disaster thriller “The Wave” and upcoming revenge psychodrama "The Doll in the Ceiling" (aka "The Good Sister"). Comedy "The Wendy Effect" opens right before the deadline and could also make the list if it's good, as could cancer drama "All the Beauty" if it gets released (though it probably won't). Last year, the Norwegians selected “1000 Grams” which opened right before the deadline and which nobody had seen or heard of. Probably out-of-luck:  action-thriller “Haram”, about the country’s Pakistani immigrant community, family adventure “Operation Arctic”, about siblings trapped in a winter storm in remote Svalbard, and “Returning Home”, about two former soldiers searching for their missing father. I’m predicting upcoming “The Wave” a large-scale disaster movie about a real-life series of landslides and tidal waves that terrorized village communities 1934 Norway. “Homesick”, about romantic chemistry between two long-separated half-siblings may be too “icky”, "Doll" too small-scale, and comedy “Wendy Effect” a bit too silly. Norway's last Oscar nominee was the big "Kon-Tiki" so “The Wave” should be able to win this easily.

15. PAKISTAN- "Moor" Pakistan has been seeing a definite cinematic revival in recent years so it appears likely they’ll continue sending films after returning to the Oscars in 2013 after a 50-year break. This year, I feel confident they will send “Moor”, a drama set in the ethnic minority province of Baluchistan. Though the plot doesn’t sound too exciting (the decline of the railways industry in Baluchistan), it is said to be beautifully shot and tells the story from a very human perspective. It’s set to be released on Pakistani Independence Day in August.  The Pakistanis have several other options. The three biggest challengers are high-octane action drama “Yalghaar”, about a famed anti-terrorist operation, poet biopic “Main Manto” and “Ho Mann Jahan” (September, a more contemporary story with strong word-of-mouth, about three friends trying to make it in the music industry. Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a question mark. She won Best Documentary Short in 2012 and released her first feature film this year- a popular 3D animated film for children called “Bahadur”. Obaid-Chinoy has chaired Pakistan's Oscar selection committee for the past two years. Will that mean anything? Despite good box-office and local reviews, it’s very much a children’s film so I’m hoping one of the more serious films gets the nod. Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary background may also make them consider “Beyond the Heights”, about the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest. There are also three strong dramas with no release date: “Hijrat”, a love story set on the Afghan-Pakistan border, cricket biopic “Kaptaan” and most importantly patriotic  drama “Saya-e-Khudaya e Zuljalal”, repeatedly delayed since last year. In conclusion, I’m still feeling very good about “Moor”’s chances, with “Ho Mann Jahan" its main challenger.

16. PALESTINE- "Dégradé" Palestinian cinema has been moderately successful this year, with three films featured at major international festivals. “Villa Touma” (Venice 2014) is about three sisters from a wealthy Christian family who now find themselves living in poverty. “Dégradé” (Cannes 2015) is about a group of women at a beauty salon sheltering from Israeli bombings in Gaza. “”Love, Theft and Other Entanglements” (Berlin) is a thriller about a man who steals a car, not knowing an Israeli soldier is being held captive in the trunk. All three have gotten somewhat mixed reviews, with Western critics being especially harsh. There’s also the expensive Jesus Christ biopic “The Saviour”, and UK-funded documentary “Roshmia” about an elderly Palestinian couple forced from their home by Israeli soldiers. It won Best Feature in Dubai 2014. My prediction is “Dégradé”, whose twin-brother directors have successfully branded the movie as the Palestinian film to see this year. Hany Abu Assad’s two films that I mentioned last year haven’t advanced past the development/production stage.

17. PANAMA- "Canal Stories" (Historias del canal) Panama became the fourth Central American country to enter the Oscar race last year (after Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua, but before El Salvador and Honduras). Production is up and their clear front-runner is “Panama Canal Stories”, a series of five short films revolving around the Panama Canal at five different eras in Panamanian history (1913, 1950, 1964, 1977 and 2013), including one by Abner Benaim, who directed Panama's debut submission last year, and two helmed by women. There’s also surfing documentary “Breaking the Waves”, but I’m pretty sure “Canal Stories” will be selected. For an interesting article on Panama’s burgeoning film industry, see here 

18. PERU- "The Vanished Elephant" (El elefante desaparecio) Peru has about ten eligible films this year, not including Claudia Llosa’s “Aloft” starring Jennifer Connelly, which appears to be in English. I think it will come down to a very close race between confusing mystery-thriller “The Vanished Elephant” and “Climas”, a pretty film about the lives of women in three different regions of the country. “Climas” looks more like what the Peruvian Academy usually selects, but I’m going to predict “Elephant” because of director Javier Fuentes-Delon, who made my favorite Peruvian movie of all time- “Contracorriente”.  "Vanished Elephant", about a mystery writer trying to solve the mystery of his missing girlfriend, is said to resemble David Lynch, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Peru has a few other candidates too. They could easily go for large-scale historical drama “Glory of the Pacific”, a war movie that got middling reviews at home but could try to emulate last year’s shortlisted “Libertador” from Venezuela, or select “NN”, which has played at a number of festivals, about a forensic team trying to identify the bodies found in mass graves- a real-life historical legacy of the former dictatorship. The other candidates are unlikely: quirky experimental film “Videofilia”, rape drama “Atacada”, low-budget drama “Solos”, comedy “The Grandfather” and “Desaparacer”, a missing-person thriller set amidst the world of illegal logging. 

19. PHILIPPINES- "Bwaya" (Crocodile)  The Philippines is one of the hardest races to predict this year. The Filipinos have gone arthouse the past five years with films that booked slots at major festivals. Three of these were co-produced by Cinemalaya, famous for making, edgy, often low-budget independent cinema. Many of these independent films don’t get a wide cinematic release (unlike mainstream Filipino films which are released alongside Hollywood films in multiplexes across the country) so I never know when they are eligible. Most Oscar watchers this year are predicting the Philippines will send Brillante Mendoza’s Cannes drama “Trap” (Taklub), about the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. It won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes, but Mendoza’s gritty films have never been selected before and “Taklub” is not his most acclaimed film. It has a chance, but I think Mendoza may have to continue to wait. No less than eight films from last year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival won major awards- “The Commitment”, “Crocodile”,”The Janitor”, ”Justice”, “K’na the Dreamweaver”, “Sparks”, “Sundalong Kanin” and “Where  I Am King”.  Two of these (“Crocodile” and “Sparks”) got Best Picture nominations at the Gawad Urian Awards (a good precursor for the Philippines Oscar submission). You can add to the race two very different biopics- one about a man who fought the Spanish (historical drama “Bonifacio”) and one about a living legend who fights everyone (boxing drama “Kid Kulafu”, about the life of Manny Pacquiao).  Popular rom-com “English Only Please”, about a Filipino-American trying to find a bride, may also be considered a dark horse since Americans may be able to relate to it. This is really a wide-open race and I see it coming down to three finalists; (1)- Mendoza’s “Trap” has the buzz and the momentum and last year the Filipinos chose the “festival favorite” (which they don't usually do). There may also be the feeling that he has been passed over so many times that he’s due, (2)- “Crocodile” (Bwaya) is a docudrama about a woman whose 13-year old daughter disappears after being attacked by a crocodile. It’s not a "big" film, but it has the advantage of positive notices at both mainstream and independent awards ceremonies, (3)- “Kid Kulafu” is about Manny Pacquiao, a man that Americans will know well. It was well-received by critics and got an A-rating from the Cinema Evaluation Board but it's clearly a mainstream effort for the masses. I predict an upset for “Crocodile”, with “Kid Kulafu”  and “Trap” second and third. Rounding out the top five will be “Where I Am King”, about an old man returning to his ancestral village, and “Sundalong Kanin”, about young brothers growing up during the Japanese occupation of the 1940s.  

20. POLAND- "Karbala" For the first time in their (nearly) 60-year Oscar history, Poland is attending the Academy Awards as reigning champion. While I will never understand the appeal of the well-made but forgettable “Ida”, it’s nice they got their chance to shine. This year they have a number of candidates with no clear front-runner. I‘m inclined to predict “Summer Solstice”, a drama following four characters in the Polish countryside in 1943- a Nazi officer, a Polish man and woman, and a Jewish woman who escapes from a concentration camp. The film- a co-production with Germany- is finished and was screened at Cannes Film Market representing Poland. It’s scheduled to premiere in German cinemas in October but has no release date in Poland. So I doubt it’s eligible, though Poland did do an Oscar-qualifying run for "In Darkness" so one never knows. Assuming it's not released, the race is wide open, with no less than five viable candidates. In alphabetical order, they are “Body” (winner, Best Director at Berlinale 2015), a dramedy about a man, his anorexic daughter and a therapist with unusual powers, “Gods”, which got ten nominations (but only one win) at last year’s Polish Eagles, the biopic of a renowned surgeon, “Heart and the Sweetheart” (director Kolski was selected in 2003), about a little orphan girl who aspires to be a ballerina, “Karbala”, a thriller about Polish soldiers fighting Jihadis in Iraq circa 2004, and “The Photographer” (director Krzystek was selected in 2012), a mystery-thriller about a serial killer. I’m inclined to think that “Karbala” (scheduled to premiere right before the deadline) will be the one to resonate with the Polish Academy, if “Summer Solstice” doesn’t premiere until October. It’s patriotic, exciting (hopefully) and will resonate with American audiences who saw their own soldiers fight in Iraq. If it sucks, then “Gods” will probably get this. Unlikely but still possible: “Close-ups”, about a woman with a domineering mother who wants a baby of her own, “Carte Blanche”, about a professor slowly going blind and “Influence”, a historical drama co-starring Crispin Glover (?!) which is in Polish.

21. PORTUGAL- "Arabian Nights, Volume One" Portugal has the worst record of any country at the Oscars- dozens upon dozens of submissions with zero nominations. This year, they’ll be hoping to change that with Miguel Gomes’ magnum opus “Arabian Nights”.  Premiering in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, “Arabian Nights” is actually three 2-hour films, transporting Scheheradze and her stories to Portugal circa 2012, in the midst of that country’s devastating economic crisis. Will Portugal send the first film? Or the better-reviewed second one? Or will they try and do an Oscar-qualifying screening of the full 6 hour, 35 minute omnibus? Or will they just make a crazy decision and pick something else entirely, like when they ignored the acclaimed “Mysteries of Lisbon” for a documentary? “Arabian Nights” has been fairly warmly received so I think they’ll send the first film (though Variety indicates they are meant to be watched together), but the Portuguese often make mind-numbingly odd decisions. The biggest challenger is "Montanha", set to premiere at Venice Critics Week in August. This highly anticipated film is a coming-of-ager about a 14-year old faced with the death of his beloved grandfather. However, with no domestic release scheduled, it will likely not threaten until next year. Next up is "Grey and Black” (Cinzento e Negro), a revenge drama set amidst a small village. It will open in Portuguese cinemas in September. In Fourth Place, is likely to be “Horse Money” (Locarno 2014), a “neo-realist” sequel of sorts to a film called “Colossal Youth” (I've never heard of it) about a 70-year old destitute Cabo Verdean who has lived in Portugal for decades. Rounding out the Top Five choices: “Suddenly My Thoughts Halt”, a documentary about schizophrenia. I think the sheer scope of “Arabian Nights” and prestige of Cannes should wow the weak and perpetually disappointed Portuguese Academy.

22. PUERTO RICO- "La granja" Puerto Rico was unceremoniously dumped from the Foreign Oscar invite list in 2010. AMPAS has never given a good reason why they allowed the Spanish-speaking U.S. territory to compete from 1986-2010 (obtaining one Oscar nomination) before banning them in 2011. Greenland and Hong Kong, which have similar autonomous status, are still allowed to send films. Hopefully one day, AMPAS will rectify this extremely stupid decision. I still include them in my predictions. This year, Puerto Rico would be sure to submit the long-awaited “La Granja” (The Farm), a multi-strand drama about five characters living in an Argentine barrio. It played at the 2015 Cannes Film Market. Director Angel Manuel Soto has had shorts screened at Cannes twice before and this film has been in development for years. It will be released in Puerto Rico in the second half of 2015. 

23. ROMANIA- "Aferim!" Unfortunately, my research on Romania seems to have gotten erased by accident so I'll keep this one short. I predict an easy win for "Aferim!", a B&W historical drama that won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. Set in the 19th century, it's about a gendarme's search for a runaway "Gypsy slave" through the multi-ethnic Romanian countryside (then part of the Ottoman Empire). The film has been a critical success as well as an unexpected box-office hit in Romania, generating a great deal of debate about inter-ethnic relations. It's main competition is "One Floor Below", about a quarrel between neighbors that ends up in death. Was it a murder? Other options: comedy "The Treasure" (about a neighbor who asks for help finding buried treasure) and drama "Quod erat demonstratum" about a mathematician who learns he was betrayed by a dear friend twenty years before, during the Communist times. Though it's a 2013 film, it opened in Romania in October 2014. "Aferim!" should get this easily. 

PARAGUAY is the only major Latin American country never to enter the Oscar race but with domestic film output up to 20 films in 2015 and a Goya nomination in 2013, I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave it a go with “Filthy Luck” (aka “Cicada Moon”), about an American who travels to Paraguay and gets involved in the country’s underworld, or “Mangoré”, a music biopic starring Mexican Oscar nominee Damián Alcázar. If they don’t, I’d expect them to join next year with the heavily buzzed-about road movie, “Guarani”. Acclaimed African New Wave director Souleymane Cissé of MALI appeared at Cannes 2015 with “O Ka”, a documentary about his family's struggles not to lose their land, only his second film in 20 years. Unfortunately, it probably never screened in Mali. NIGERIA said they would send a film for the first time last year, but they didn't.....This year's Ibo-language "Chetanna" is a fairly big-budget effort and it was the only non-English language Nigerian movie nominated at this year's African Academy Awards. And although it's highly unlikely, three small island states could send surprise submissions, namely "Jilel: The Calling of the Shell”, a film about a girl who sets out to single-handedly stop global warming from destroying her island atoll from MARSHALL ISLANDS; “Emme Fahu Vindha Jehendhen”, a Bollywood-style romance between two young people from different social classes which has been quite popular in the MALDIVES; and “Lonbraz Kann” (Seattle) from MAURITIUS a film in Mauritian Creole, about the effect the closure of a sugar mill has on the local community. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


And here's Group 3.....I haven't had time to write up the world's largest film industry- INDIA- but you can see some guesses in the Comments Section. I hope to finish them later.

1. HONG KONG- "Little Big Master" The city-state of Hong Kong has three main candidates this year, namely “Dearest” (directed by Peter Chan, “Perhaps Love”), “Little Big Master” and “Port-of-Call”. I’m wavering between the first two but have decided to predict “Little Big Master”, a heartwarming family drama (based on a true story) about a dedicated headmistress who leaves her elite school to take care of a small village kindergarten with only five students. Everyone who sees it seems to like it, and it seems to fit the same mold as recent sentimental Hong Kong selections like “Echoes of the Rainbow” and “A Simple Life”. To me, “Dearest” sounds much more interesting, and it also has a high chance of being selected. It’s about a couple whose child is kidnapped and found years later living with an impoverished woman who may or may not be the kidnapper. Who gets to keep the child? How did the child end up with this woman? Reviews have been solid, though it lost Best Picture at the Hong Kong Fim Awards to Ann Hui’s dull “Golden Era” which repped Hong Kong last year. In third place will be “Port of Call”, the Closing Film at the 2015 HK Film Festival, starring Aaron Kwok as a police inspector investigating the murder of a teenage prostitute. The killer confesses at the beginning of the movie, so this is much more a movie about “WHY” rather than “WHO”. Rounding out the Top Five will be “Office” (aka “Design for Living”), a musical-comedy directed by Johnnie To, famous for his gritty gangster films (and who’s repped Hong Kong four times) and Tsui Hark’s splashy 3D action film “Taking of Tiger Mountain”, set during the Chinese civil wars of the early 20th century (also a dark horse for CHINA).  Unlikely but possible: Herman Yau’s drama “Sara”, about a female reporter investigating prostitution in Thailand. I don’t think Hong Kong will be swayed by the starpower of “The Crossing” (directed by John Woo, starring Zhang Ziyi) or “Dragon Blade” (starring Jackie Chan, Adrien Brody and John Cusack, but probably over 50% in Chinese). Two new Wong Kar-wai movies (“Blossoms”, which he is directing, and “The Ferryman”, which he wrote) don’t seem to be ready for release. If Wong hurries up, “The Ferryman” would become the new frontrunner.

2. HUNGARY- OFFICIAL SELECTION "Son of Saul" Hungary was the first country to officially name their candidate for the Oscar race on June 11, 2015, choosing the concentration camp drama "Son of Saul" four months before the official deadline. After winning four prizes, including the Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI Price at Cannes 2015, this was the obvious frontrunner. "Saul" is a grim character study of a Jewish prisoner tasked with the secret disposal of corpses from the murder of Auschwitz victims in 1944 Poland. There was little doubt Hungary would choose “Saul” but I am a bit disappointed because I have been waiting years to see horror-comedy “Liza, the Fox Fairy”. “Liza” is a dark comedy about a young nurse who ends up being terrorized by a Japanese fox demon (known as an inari) after caring for the Japanese Ambassador’s wife. The demon gleefully murders any man who takes an interest in poor Liza. The plot sounds loopy and original and, best of all, the film opened to really positive reviews. Before “Saul” came out, I was thinking “Liza” might be Hungary’s submission (after all, they sent the bizarre “Taxidermy” in 2007). "Saul" may also spell bad news for the upcoming “Lily Lane” (Bence Fliegauf) and “Home Guards” (Krisztina Goda) by two of Hungary’s leading arthouse directors. Their films have no release date but will have no chance at the Oscars if they premiere before September 30. “Saul” is no surprise, but I still would have loved to promote "Liza"!

3. ICELAND- "Virgin Mountain" Iceland has eight or nine eligible films, but this is very much an extremely competitive two-way race between “Virgin Mountain” (Berlinale), which dominated the awards at the Tribeca Film Festival, and “Rams”, which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes. That’s a lot of love for tiny Iceland and it’s anybody’s guess which one they will pick. Iceland chooses their nominee by a mass vote of the Icelandic Academy’s members rather than a traditional selection committee like most countries, so personal popularity may play a part. The arthouse may prefer “Rams”, the story of two feuding elderly brothers who live next to each other in rural Iceland but who haven’t spoken in 40 years. They are forced to work together when a virus kills their prize rams. Those voters savvy enough to pay attention to actual chances of an Oscar nonmination may opt for Dagur Kari’s “Virgin Mountain”, which won Best Fiction Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Actor at Tribeca. It's about a depressed, overweight man living at home with his mother, who finds himself unexpectedly courting a pretty, free-spirited, single mother. Both films explore surprisingly similar stories of lonely older men in today’s Iceland. Kari has been chosen once before (for the overrated “Noi the Albino”). The only film that could possibly catch up to these two is the yet-to-be-released “Sparrows”, a coming-of-age drama with several big Icelandic stars, directed by Oscar Short Film nominee Runar Runarsson. He’d be smart to wait to release the film until October. This will likely come down to just a few votes, but I think the fact that “Mountain” has proven to appeal to an American audience will make it the front-runner. Road comedy “Reverse” will be a very distant third. 

4. INDIA- "Court" Analysis to follow.

5. INDONESIA- "Guru Bangsa: Tjokroaminoto" Indonesia has chosen historical films four years in a row, and they are likely to do so again this year. Two of the films I mentioned last year as possibilities were actually released after the deadline so “Golden Cane Warrior” and “3 Nafas Likas”, both period pieces, will contend this year. The same goes for the two strongest candidates of year 2015, “Guru Bangsa: Tjokroaminoto” and historical anime “Battle of Surabaya”.  The only acclaimed “contemporary” film this year is “Coffee Philosophy”, about a struggling café, but I’m fairly certain Indonesia will choose one of the four historical films. Oddly enough, Indonesian grande dame Christine Hakim will be competing against herself, as she stars in both of the Indonesian frontrunners. If the Indonesians want something exciting, they will send “Golden Cane Warrior”, a glossy and expensive martial-arts spectacular with an all-star production team including director Ifa Isfansyah, producer Riri Riza and actor Nicholas Saputra, alongside Hakim. The four of them have co-starred or directed most of Indonesia’s recent submissions. "Warrior" is about an aging female guru (Hakim) who trains the children of her vanquished  enemies. If the Indonesians want to send something more dramatic and serious (and much less interesting), it’s likely they’ll choose 3-hour historical drama “Guru Bangsa” which covers the life of famed 20th century Indonesian resistance leader Haji Omar Said Tjokroaminoto who fought against the Dutch. Unfortunately, AMPAS couldn't care less about Indonesian resistance leaders and probably has no understanding of Indonesian history. The action-packed (and less cerebral) “Golden Cane Warrior” would appeal more and could actually get a US release if someone in the Oscar screening room saw potential. “3 Nafas Likas”, a nominee at last year’s National Film Awards, is another 20th century biopic, this time about the widow of another resistance leader. “Battle of Surabaya”, an Indonesian venture into Miyazaki-style animation, is definitely a long shot. Based on Indonesia’s previous choices, “Guru Bangsa” looks like it will be the Indonesian nominee, though I’m hoping for “Golden Cane Warrior". 

6. IRAN- "Track 143" Iran has a wide-open field and one of the most interesting races of the year, partly due to some unusual controversies. Although the Islamic Republic proudly believes itself to a model of Islamic values, its two biggest films have ironically run into controversy because they have angered conservative clerics! Majid Majidi was Iranian’s first Oscar nominee for “Children of Heaven” in 1999. Since then, three of his four features (“Colour of Paradise”, “Baran” and “Song of Sparrows”) were sent to the Oscars. So add that to the fact that historical epic “Muhammad” is the most expensive film ever made in Iran (at an estimated cost of $US35 million) and it would seem to be the obvious front-runner. However making a movie about the childhood of the Prophet Muhammad is tricky business, as it is forbidden to actually show him on screen. Majidi somehow accomplishes this, but clerics still object to seeing the back of the child Muhammad’s head (!!) The film failed to screen at the national Fajr Film Festival, probably in part due to the January terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris. While Iranian critics have praised the film, some Sunni Arabs have called for it to be banned. Majidi, who has Iranian government support, has said the film is meant to educate and unite Muslims and has reaffirmed that he will make two more “Muhammad” films constituting a trilogy. Majidi is not the only one with problems. The 2014 Fajr Best Picture Winner- expensive 7th century historical epic “Hussein, Who Said No”- ran into similar problems, since it showed certain distant relatives of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s all very ridiculous! In any case, even if these two historical films weren’t so controversial, they’re also aimed directly at an Islamic audience. Hollywood won’t care about the controversy, but they may not understand the context of the films. So that's a long way of saying that I think Iran will not court controversy and simply choose a more contemporary Iranian film to send to the Oscars. I’m feeling good about “Track 143”, a drama about women on the homefront, waiting for their sons to come home from war. It won the Audience Award at the 2014 Fajr Film Festival and was released in Iranian cinemas in November. Iran has never chosen a woman filmmaker, but there has been a lot of buzz in the country about female directors this year. The film has gotten very good reviews at home, tells a universally relatable story (mothers waiting for their sons to come from war) and also shows Iran in a positive light. However, with no front-runner and a fairly liberal Academy, Iran could choose any number of new movies. The two strongest runner-ups are probably “Tales” (Best Screenplay in Venice 2014 + Jury Prize, Asia-Pacific Screen Awards), a series of seven stories about the travails of contemporary Iranian life (also directed by a woman!) and “A Time for Love”, a marital relationship drama about an Iranian woman living in France (Leila Khatami) who returns home. These two films each star half the couple from the Oscar winning “A Separation” (he in “Tales”, she in “Time”). Majidi’s “Muhammad” and “Mazar-e-Sharif”, about a Taliban attack on an Iranian Consulate will round out the Top Five for Iran. But they really could choose anything, including “We Have a Guest” (parents care for a dying son), “Long Goodbye” (a man found innocent of a crime is still ostracized by a suspicious community), “Princess of Rome” (an Iranian anime film), “Raspberry” (surrogate pregnancies) and “Crazy Castle”, which got middling reviews but somehow won the top three awards at Fajr 2015 for a story of teens behaving badly on social media. As for Iran’s festival films…”Nahid” (Cannes, Un Certain Regard), another female-helmed film, seems a bit too controversial as it explores the Shi’ite custom of “temporary marriage”. Berlinale Golden Bear winner “Taxi”, made in secret by Jafar Panahi, won’t be considered at all as Panahi remains legally banned from making films for twenty years. The Guardian recently published a good article on this year’s Fajr Film Festival and the decline of Iranian arthouse to the advantage of commercial blockbusters. Still confused!

7. IRAQ- "Silence of the Shepherd" Iraq has suffered so much this year and yet they rejoined the Oscar race in 2014 and won a Crystal Bear in the Short Film section at Berlinale 2015. Most Iraqi films are made in the autonomous Kurdish region which has remained (mostly) peaceful and stable over the past 15 years. This year, Iraq has two standout films, one Kurdish and one Arab. “Memories on Stone”, the Kurdish-language film, has the higher profile, winning “Best Film from the Arab World” at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Best Picture at the Erbil Film Festival (in Iraqi Kurdistan) and the UNESCO Award at the Asia-Pacific Film Awards (the pan-Asian Oscars). It’s about a pair of aspiring filmmakers desperately seeking a lead actress for their new film about Saddam Hussein's atrocities against the Kurds. When the directors finally find a perfect actress, they find they'll need to convince her reluctant family to agree to be in the film. “Silence of the Shepherd”, in Arabic, is about a rural man’s desperate search for his 13-year daughter who has disappeared while fetching water from the river. Dealing with the controversial concepts of honor and machismo in today's Iraqi Arab society, both films sound good. Unlikely but possible: “Face of the Ash” (Busan), a black comedy about a village trying to identify a body. The Iraqis have a very tough choice, and it may come down to who can get an Oscar-eligible screening (and it would be much easier for the Kurds to do that in the mostly peaceful North). I’m going out on a limb and predicting the more serious “Shepherd”. The Iraqis have sent three Kurdish films and two Arab films to the Oscars, and there may be a desire to even the score.

8. IRELAND- "Moscow Never Sleeps" Ireland obviously makes most of their films in English, but they have sent two films in Irish Gaelic as well as one film in Bosnian. I don’t believe they have any feature films in Irish this year (in fact the “Irish Language Award” at the Irish Film & Television Awards appears to have disappeared) but they do have three possible choicesin 2015, namely silk weaving documentary “Tana Bana” (made by an Irish director in Uttar Pradesh, India), multi-character drama "Moscow Never Sleeps" (made by an Irish director based in Moscow) and Spanish-language LGBT-themed drama “Viva” (made by an Irish director in Cuba). With all the hubbub around gay marriage in Ireland, I originally predicted “Viva”, the story of an 18-year old Cuban hustler who suddently becomes reacquainted with his father gets out of prison after serving a 15-year sentence. Since that film is still unreleased, it's more likely Ireland will select "Moscow Never Sleeps" (described as a "love letter to Moscow") which opens in Russia in September, though it also has no domestic release date. 

9. ISRAEL- "Kapo in Jerusalem" In my first draft for Israel, I wrote about how I predicted a surprise snub for Natalie Portman's Cannes drama “A Tale of Love and Darkness” which is being buzzed about online as the most likely Israeli candidate. I also predicted the five Ophir candidates to be announced in August, with Jerusalem International Film Festival winner "Tikkun" taking the prize and representing Israel. Unfortunately, neither "Love and Darkness" nor "Tikkun" will even be eligible for the Oscars, as they haven't registered themselves as candidates. Neither will "Suicide" (which I heard was very good) which was apparently considered last year, nor Amos Gitai's "Tsili" (which had no chance in hell anyway). Oh well! The full list of the 23 Israeli candidates (in Hebrew) can be found here. So, what film will represent Israel? I now predict the five Ophir candidates will be: "Afterthought" (aka "Stair Cases"; Cannes 2015), an odd, intellectual comedy about two men going up and down stairs in different directions,  "AKA Nadia", the directorial debut of an award-winning editor, about an Arab woman who was raised Jewish, "Kapo in Jerusalem", a drama about two Auschwitz survivors who settle in pre-independence Israel, "The Kind Words", a family drama about three brothers (made by a director who is traditionally well-liked at the Ophirs) and “Man in the Wall”, a mystery-thriller about a man who vanishes while walking his dog. Alternate choices for the Israeli shortlist include "Baba Joon", a Farsi-language drama about Israel's Iranian Jewish community, "90 Minute War", about the race to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "Wedding Doll", about a mentally handicapped woman at a paper factory who falls in love, and Dror Shaul's peacenik comedy "Atomic Falafel", about two girls from Iran and Israel who meet online and secretly plot to denuclearize the Middle East. Oscar nominee Uri Barbash ("Kapo in Jerusalem"), Eyan Halfon ("90-Minute War") and Dror Shaul ("Atomic Falafel") have represented Israel in the Oscar race before, while Shemi Zarhin ("The Kind Words") missed out by a single Academy vote (losing to Shaul in a tiebreaker). I still wonder whether JIFF winner "Tikkun" or Portman's "Love and Darkness" will find some way of sneaking into the Ophir race late. But, I think the eventual winner will be the deadly serious "Kapo in Jerusalem", with comic "Afterthought" its main competition. Based on a famous play, "Kapo" is about a male doctor and a female pianist who settle in Israel after WWII. The doctor faces allegations of abuse from the war and is soon enlisted in the army to fight for Israel's independence in 1948. 

10. ITALY- "Mia Madre" This year's Italian contest has fewer contenders than usual. Last year’s big winner at the Donatello Awards (“Black Souls”) opened a few days too early to be considered. Paolo Sorrentino (Oscar winner for “The Great Beauty”), Matteo Garrone (“Gomorrah”) and Saverio Costanzo (selected but disqualified in 2005 for the excellent “Private”) all made their films in English this year, while the latest films from acclaimed directors like Gabriele Salvatores and the Taviani Brothers have failed to live up to expectations. Italy makes over a hundred films a year, but to me this year is a pretty clear three-film race between Nanni Moretti’s dramedy “Mia madre” (the only Italian-language film in the Main Competition at Cannes 2015), Marco Bellocchio’s upcoming “Blood of my Blood” (to be released in September) and Mario Martone’s 19th century biopic “Leopardi” (Venice, 2014). Of the two films that have been released so far, I think “Mia madre” can certainly fend off "Leopardi”. “Madre” has gotten better reviews, co-stars a Hollywood actor (John Turturro) and its contemporary, universally relatable story of a production assistant coping with her stressful job and her dying mother with grace and humor will appeal to the Academy more than the story of obscure Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. If the year were to end now, “Mia madre” would have this easy. Enter Bellocchio, a respected 75-year old Italian director who hasn’t been selected for the Oscar race since 1980 (35 years!!) even for critical darlings like “Vincere” and “Good Morning Night”. “Blood of My Blood” is an odd film about a 17th century noblewoman/nun convicted of witchcraft for seducing a priest and his brother. Somehow the story then connects to another incident in present-day Italy. Bellocchio is clearly due and if the film is good, it may be selected over Moretti. I keep changing my mind between these two but I’m thinking that “Madre” fits the profile of recent Italian submissions like “Great Beauty” and “Human Capital” more than the decidedly weird “Blood”. I could mention other Italian films that will be on Italy’s longlist (“Antonia”, “Greenery will Bloom Again”, “Invisible Boy”, “Latin Lover”, “La scelta”) but I really don’t see any film other than these three being seriously considered to represent Italy. 

11. JAPAN-  "Cape Nostalgia" I have never once correctly guessed the Japanese Oscar submission, as it’s so hard to figure out what they like. Sometimes, they’ll choose a film that you really need to be Japanese to understand (“The Great Passage”), while other times they’ll choose a silly mainstream effort that could have been made in Hollywood (“Hula Girls”). They only rarely choose films that have done well at international film festivals (snubbing “Like Father, Like Son”, “Unagi”), often snub films that seem destined to be Oscar nominees ("Always: Sunset on Third Street") and sometimes choose obscure films out of nowhere that haven’t really impressed anyone at all (“Our Homeland”, the first female-helmed film ever to represent Japan and “OUT”, which I loved but nobody else did). Japan used to send a lot of period samurai films until one got nominated (“The Twilight Samurai”) and then they stopped! This year (as always) Japan has produced hundreds of films (heavy on animation and horror) and has half a dozen legitimate Oscar contenders. Having said that, it’s completely possible they will ignore all of them.  I see this as a “fight to the finish” between two of Japan’s most respected senior actresses- 70-year old Sayuri Yoshinaga (sometimes referred to as Japan’s Meryl Streep, with 17 Japanese Oscar nominations for Best Leading Actress since 1981) and 72-year old Kirin Kiki (10 nominations since 1986). Yoshinaga stars in “Cape Nostalgia”, a box-office success which marks her first film as producer. It’s a gentle drama about an elderly woman who runs a countryside café with her dim-witted nephew, who dispenses advice and good will to the locals who frequent her establishment. Despite the simple plot, it is said to be entertaining and emotional, and it got nominated in every category at this year’s Oscars (though it won nothing). “Sweet Red Bean Paste” (aka “An”), directed by arthouse film director Naomi Kawase, played at Cannes 2015. Kawase has generally been more successful in France than in her native Japan but “Bean Paste” is said to be her first film to appeal to a Japanese audience. It’s about an elderly woman who asks to help the grouchy middle-aged manager of a dorayaki stall improve the flavor of his sweets. The man, who hates sweets, reluctantly lets the old woman help. Though Kawase is very “arthouse”, this movie is said to be accessible to both Western and Japanese audiences. It also sounds like total Oscar bait- Oscar loves tearjerkers, food porn, old people and “Babette’s Feast”. In the end, though I think “Bean Paste” would have a better chance in Hollywood, the fact that Kawase works outside the studio system and that women directors have been selected two of the past three years may give Yoshinaga and her more popular “Cape Nostalgia” the Japanese nod. It’s interesting though that both of these frontrunners have such similar themes. Also very possible: (in 3rd place) “Pale Moon”, a much more manic, modern drama-thriller about a conservative housewife who gets involved in a life of crime to help support her younger boyfriend. Japan often chooses more “contemporary” films, and “Pale Moon” has gotten very strong notices for lead actress Rie Miyazawa (“Twilight Samurai”) and its sly humor. It won the Audience Award at the Tokyo Film Festival and won two Japanese Oscars (Best Actress and Best Newcomer). In 4th place is Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Our Little Sister” (Cannes 2015) , which bloggers seem to be predicting for Japan. About three adult sisters who meet their teenaged half sister after the death of their father, Koreeda excels at these sorts of family dramas. However, Japan rarely nominates independent directors. It’s true Koreeda was selected once, but he has been ignored for many more acclaimed films than this, though this one has done well at the box-office… In 5th place will be “100-Yen Love”, a quirky comedy which won Best Japanese Film at the 2014 Tokyo Film Festival. It’s about a female hikikomori (someone who shuts themselves off from the rest of the world) who ends up moving out of her house to avoid her annoying sister and becomes a successful amateur boxer. The Japanese are extremely unpredictable so they could also easily consider two films by previously submitted directors- Takashi Koizumi’s samurai drama “A Samurai Chronicle” and Yuya Ishii’s baseball drama “Vancouver Asahi”, about Japanese immigrants in pre-WWII Canada. But reviews for these two haven’t been as strong as for their previous films. I think Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Fires on the Plain” (Venice 2014) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s genre-bending ghost romance “Journey to the Shore” (Cannes 2015, Best Director, Un Certain Regard) are too weird and divisive. Count on one of the two obasan to be selected.

12. JORDAN- "Theeb" The Kingdom of Jordan has only sent a movie once (the delightful “Captain Abu Raed”) but they are almost certain to make a second submission this year with the critically acclaimed “Theeb”. After winning major awards in Abu Dhabi (Best Picture), Cairo and Venice (Best Director, Horizons Section), this beautifully shot historical drama finally premiered in Jordanian cinemas in March 2015. The film, featuring gorgeous desert cinematography, is about two young Arab brothers during the Ottoman era, who follow a troop of British soldiers on a secret reconnaissance mission. It’s also been picked up by Film Movement for distribution in the U.S. One of the easiest predictions. Count on it to rep Jordan.

13. KAZAKHSTAN- "Kenzhe" Kazakhstan mysteriously skipped last year’s competition, ignoring one of the most critically acclaimed foreign films of the year- “Harmony Lessons”. It’s true that school bullying drama “Harmony” was a bit controversial, but why not select another film? Kazakhstan makes about 20 films per year. It’s odd. Perhaps a problem with paperwork?  My prediction for 2015 is “Kenzhe”, a new crime drama directed by Ermek Tursunov. Tursunov received a shortlist spot for “Kelin” (Daughter-In-Law) and also competed with “Shal” (The Old Man) in 2013. “Kenzhe” (literally translated as Younger Brother) is said to be the third film in a trilogy about Kazakhstan. Information is scarce but it's some sort of crime drama about two brothers trying to make a living in the big city. Tursunov said it is not a “festival film” but one for the people of Kazakhstan. Does that mean he doesn't want an Oscar? The biggest Kazakh film on the film festival circuit this year- tragicomedy “The Owners”- is about a family of orphans facing off against a corrupt bureaucracy. It has apparently not been received well in the country at all (they’ve accused the director of showing the country in a negative light) and I don’t think it’s gotten a domestic release at all. Other possibilities besides “Kenzhe” include “The Way Home”, about a Kazakh man who returns to his homeland after studying abroad, “Voice of the Steppes”, starring actor Gerard Depardieu (now a Russian citizen) and “To Be or Not to Be?”, a retelling of Hamlet starring an actor with cerebral palsy.  Festival films like “Nagima” (Busan 2013) and “Adventure” (Karlovy Vary 2014) could also come into play if they premiered at home late, as often happens in Kazakhstan. Out of luck: stylish thriller “The Whole World at our Feet” co-starring Peter O’Toole, Armand Assante and Michael Madsen alongside a Kazakh cast appears to have too much English.

14. KENYA- "Strength of a Woman" The Kenya Film Commission reportedly considered sending a film last year….but then they didn’t. Their only Oscar submission thus far was the enormously entertaining “Nairobi Half Life”, which was produced thanks to the support of German director Tom Tykwer and his Kenyan production house One Fine Day Films. Unfortunately, their latest effort “Veve”, a political thriller, appears to have been released four weeks before the eligibility period. Not sure why they didn’t send it last year. Kenya’s most critically praised film of the year- low-budget LGBT anthology “Stories of Our Lives”- is banned in Kenya and one of its producers was arrested by Kenyan authorities due to the country's homophobic laws, despite accolades at Berlin (where it won a Teddy Award) and Toronto. What does that leave? Very little. So I’ll predict feminist drama “Strength of A Woman”, about a teenager desperately trying to achieve her dreams while her drunkard father tries to marry her off. It opened in March 2015 after winning Best Picture at the local Kalasha Awards. 

15. KOREA- "Ode to my Father" Greetings from South Korea! Even though Korea produces many good films, I'm feeling strangely confident that nobody can beat "Ode to My Father". Ever since it opened last December, the film has broken box-office records (it is currently the #2 Korean box-office hit of all time) and garnered critical acclaim. It has proven its ability to appeal to mainstream audiences, but also landed an arthouse berth at the Berlinale Panorama. Korea is desperate for a first Oscar nomination (they've deserved many) and the film's positive reception from US audiences (even the US Ambassador saw it and said he loved it) will surely vault the film to an Oscar berth. Incidentally, the film covers nearly 50 years of Korean history beginning with a boy's separation from much of his family during the Korean War to his attempts to work hard and make money for his family in the Southern city of Busan, and later abroad. It costars actress Yunjin KIM ("Lost"). While the film has been praised by political conservatives (including President Park), there's really been no liberal backlash, so I think it's okay. If the Korean Academy doesn't want to choose a film the conservative President likes, I think the second choice will be LEE Jun-ik's period drama "The Throne" (aka "Prince Sado"), a lush royal period piece about a controversial 18th century prince executed in a most cruel fashion by his father. Rounding out the Top Five: "Assassination", an action-thriller about political intrigue during the Japanese colonial era, "Set Me Free", a drama about a boy with an abusive father trying desperately to remain with his new foster family and "Western Front 1953", yet another large-scale Korean War drama, this time about encounters between North and South Korean soldiers at the end of the war (sounds like "The Front Line"). Others in with a chance: "Coin Locker Girl" (Cannes), about what becomes of a young woman raised by a criminal gang after being abandoned in a coin locker as a baby, "Revivre" (Venice 2014), IM Kwon-taek's 102nd film about an aging man who falls for a younger woman while his wife is on her deathbed and "Salut d'Amour", a small-scale elderly romance starring two retired film stars and directed by action-film director Je-kyu KANG. And just to make this an even "Top Ten" let's add "C'est si bon", about a rural boy who aspires to be a professional singer and "Memories of the Sword", a period piece about a female warrior. But my money is easily on "Ode to My Father". 

16. KOSOVO- "Father" Kosovo is only recognized by 60% of the world’s countries due to a dispute with Serbia, but they’ve increasingly been successful at getting admittance to “fun” international competitions like Miss Universe (since 2008), the Oscars (2014), the Olympic Games (recognized by the IOC in 2015). They reportedly have their sights set on Eurovision 2016 as well. Last year I believe Kosovo had two eligible local films- “Three Windows and a Hanging” and “Hero”. “Three Windows”, the nominee, is supposed to be quite good, although also quite hard to find. The Kosovo Cinematography Center has a number of co-productions in the works, including “Distant Angels” (about Kosovo, but by an Albanian director) and “Home Sweet Home” (a co-production with Macedonia to be filmed this year). “Distant Angels” may be released in time, though they’ll have to compete with neighboring Albania as to who gets to send it. More likely is “Babai” (Father) which is the first-ever Kosovar film to compete at a Class A International Film Festival (Karlovy Vary 2015). It’s about the relationship between a father and his 10-year old son amidst the complicated turmoil of the 1990s wars. The father tries to illegally emigrate to Germany to find work, with the son doing everything he can to follow. 

17. KUWAIT- "Habib al-Arad" Kuwait sent two films to the Oscars in 1972 and 1978. They have the longest absence of any country in the world except Cote d’Ivoire (1976). Although I didn’t know about it at the time, Kuwait had a suitable candidate last year- “He Was My Friend” (aka Kan Refeeji), which performed well at home during the Eid holidays, and was invited to the rebooted 2014 Cairo International Film Festival, a rare Class A Festival slot for a Gulf film. If they didn’t send “Friend” (or the acclaimed “Tora Bora” a few years back) then they’re unlikely to return this year either. However, "Habib al-Arad" would make a suitable candidate. It's the true biopic of a renowned poet and humanitarian who was killed during the Iraqi invasion of 1991. It's far more likely than their other eligible film,  “090”, a low-budget thriller about mysterious goings-on at a vacation house.  

18. KYRGYZSTAN- "Heavenly Nomadic" Kyrgyzstan has zero Oscar nominations, but this small former Soviet mountain republic has probably come unbelievably close at least three times. We’ll never know for sure. I hope the failure of their biggest film of all-time to make the shortlist last year (“Kurmandjan Datka, Queen of the Mountains”) won’t lead them to stop trying. This year’s likely nominee is “Heavenly Nomadic”, the directorial debut of the 32-year old son of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous international director Aktan Arym Kubat (aka Aktan Abdykalykov). He's also the former child star of his father’s films, including two Kyrgyz Oscar submissions, “Beshkempir” and “The Chimp”. Besides the fact that he comes from a well-established Kyrgyz filmmaking family, "Nomadic" was produced by the director of last year's "Queen of the Mountains" and was selected for Karlovy Vary’s 2015 East of the West competition. Mirlan's father wrote the script to “Nomadic”, about a close-knit family of nomads living in the mountains. The Kyrgyz Academy likes these sorts of village films and they typically do them quite well. Also possible: “The Move” (Busan) is a (long) movie about an adorable little girl and her grandfather who are pressured by the girl’s mother to move to the big city. Dark horse: “Under Heaven”, about a woman and the jealousy that arises from her relationship with two brothers.

19. LATVIA- "Alias Loner" Latvia is a difficult one to predict this year. They have five features scheduled to premiere in 2015 but as of July none of them have made it into theatres. I believe they also have four films eligible from 2014 (a docudrama, two festival dramas and a horror-thriller) but a lot of this will depend on what gets released by September 30, 2015. If all nine films are eligible (which they won’t be), my prediction would easily be “Chronicles of Melanie”, a harrowing drama about a woman separated from her husband and deported to Siberia with her 8-year old son during Stalin’s mass deportations. It doesn’t get any more dramatic than that. However, “Melanie” won't premiere until year's end. My next pick would be “Dawn”, about a patriotic young Communist who denounces his father to the secret police, leading the rest of his family to plot revenge against him. It is directed by Laila Pakalnina, one of Latvia’s top directors and one who has never been honored here. It's scheduled to be released in "summer", but no date is scheduled. Third place would go to “My Peaceful Place of Exile”, a German co-production set in 1917 about the goings-on at a rural Latvian sanatorium for war veterans run by a German doctor. Its scheduled for “Autumn 2015”. I'm predicting all three fail to get a timely release. So, what will Latvia choose? Difficult to say, but I’m guessing "Alias Loner”, an obscure docudrama (the Latvian Film Centre says it’s a documentary but it has a “cast” and IMDB says it’s a drama) about a priest in 1945 who saves men from Soviet conscription. Like Switzerland's "Der Kreis", I think its some sort of documentary/drama hybrid. Its main competition is “Modris” (Toronto, San Sebastian), about a teenaged gambling addict.  Home invasion horror flick “Man in the Yellow Jacket” (trailer looks really good) and an ethnic Russian-Latvian update of “Romeo n Juliet” (by twice-submitted Maris Martinsons) are probably out of luck. My prediction: “Alias Loner” gets this by default, unless "Dawn" sneaks in. 

20. LEBANON- "The Valley" Lebanon won a Palme d'Or for Best Short Film at Cannes (for "Waves '98") this year. Congratulations! In terms of feature films, their highest-profile choice is “The Valley”, which has played at a number of festivals, including Toronto, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong and Seattle. It’s a slow-burn thriller about a man with amnesia who runs into trouble when he seeks help from a mysterious group of strangers who end up kidnapping him and holding him hostage. It’s slow-moving and not everyone likes it, which leaves the door wide-open for "The Road", which premiered at the Moscow Film Festival, winning the Critics Prize. About a man and his depressed wife on a road trip, it's also slow-moving and not for everyone though the fact that it won a major prize makes it more likely to be selected. In third place: documentary “Scheherazadze’s Diary”, about a group of female prisoners who put on a theatrical production in jail. Local box-office hit "Vitamin" (the #1 movie of 2014) doesn't have good-enough reviews to contend. In the end, I don't think "The Road" will be released in Lebanese cinemas until this fall, meaning "The Valley" is in. 

21. LITHUANIA- "Master and Tatyana" The Lithuanians will likely see a face-off between the two big winners at the Silver Crane Awards, namely teen lesbian drama “The Summer of Sangaile” and documentary “Master and Tatyana”. “Summer of Sangaile” won Best Picture, Actress and a Tech Award and was also the surprise winner of Best Director (World Cinema Section) at the Sundance Film Festival. Its a gentle LGBT story about two girls who fall for each other over a fascination for stunt airplanes. The film lost Best Director at the Silver Cranes to “Master and Tatyana”, which also won Best Documentary, Editing and Cinematography, for its look at Vitas Luckus, a famous (but insane) Soviet Lithuanian photographer whose life ended in a bizarre murder-suicide. Their third candidate, “Peace to Us in Our Dreams” (Cannes) will be released in Lithuania in October, making it ineligible. The Lithuanian Academy likes documentaries…three of their seven Oscar submissions to the Oscars have been docs less than a hour long, and “Master and Tatyana” is more consequential fare. Add to that the fact that Lithuania is one of the most squeamish countries in Europe about LGBT issues....So, I predict the surprise selection of "Master & Tatyana” to represent Lithuania. In third place: historical drama “We Will Sing”, about the 1991 struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. If “Sing” wasn’t a UK co-production (with a British director), I might have ranked it higher.

22. LUXEMBOURG- "Mammejong" Luxembourg has no less than four films in their native dialect (Letzeburgesch) this year, plus one majority Luxembourg production in French. That may be a record for the country, which mostly deals in minority co-productions because of its small size. Three of these films are by locally famous directors who have been submitted before (Pol Cruchten, Andy Bausch and Christophe Wagner) while the other two are by newer filmmakers.  The front-runner should clearly be “Eng nei Zäit”, a period drama about a young man who returns to his village in 1945 after fleeing during the four-year Nazi occupation. When his girlfriend is murdered soon thereafter, he finds the investigation hampered by a number of village secrets connected to the war. Director Christophe Wagner directed the well-received thriller “Blind Spot” and this looks like it has a bigger budget. The problem is that it is not scheduled to be released until October 14th in Luxembourg, making it eligible next year. That means the field is wide open between French-language crime thriller “Les Brigands” and dark dramas “Baby (a)lone” and “Mammejong”. The confusing “Les Brigands” has not gotten the best reviews despite its higher profile (Director Cruchten repped Luxembourg twice and the film co-stars French actor Tcheky Karyo and the late German actor Maximilian Schell), so I’m going to predict they send “Mammejong”, about a 20-year old man who lives with his stifling widowed mother (she makes them sleep together in the same bed), whose life is changed when he meets a teenaged runaway. "Baby (a)lone", about a violent sociopathic teen whose life is far different from Luxembourg's wealthy capital, will come second. I don’t expect Andy Bausch’s documentary “Faustino” to figure in.

The most likely national debut this year is the impoverished Caribbean nation of HAITI. Former Haitian Minister of Culture Raoul Peck ("Lumumba") has made his first fiction feature in 15 years with "Meurtre a Pacot" which managed to be shown in Berlin Panorama. That's pretty impressive for a Haitian film. Set over eight days in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, it's about a middle-class couple who are forced to rent out their home to a French aid worker and his trashy girlfriend and move into an adjoining garden shed in order to pay for repairs to save their house from total demolition. It's also possible we could see "Vientiane in Love" from the Communist Southeast Asian nation of LAOS. It's an omnibus of love stories from some of the countries up-and-coming directors.