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.

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