Tuesday, November 29, 2016

2017 Foreign Oscar Predictions- EASTERN EUROPE

And here are the 21 films from Eastern Europe. While I think may of these films may do well in the rankings, I'm probably going to predict that this group gets no spots on the shortlist this year. However, I have my fingers crossed for "Eva Nova", from SLOVAKIA....Possibly the best film I've seen this year and available (legally!) for free via FestivalScope!

21. ARMENIA "Earthquake" 

Sadly we'll never know how Armenia's big-budget disaster film would have played with the Academy because AMPAS decided to make the Armenians (and the Afghans) the victims of its unevenly applied rules regarding nationality. The Armenians appealed the decision and I expected it to be accepted (Austria's appeal was allowed for their German film....and Armenia won an appeal many years ago with "Vodka Lemon") but AMPAS decided that this Armenian film in Armenian and Russian directed by an Armenian, set in Armenia and about one of the most important events in Armenian history was in fact not an Armenian film. 

20. KOSOVO- "Home Sweet Home"
19. SLOVENIA- "Houston! We Have A Problem!"
18. LATVIA- "Dawn"
17. LITHUANIA- "Seneca's Day"
16. UKRAINE- "Ukrainian Sheriffs"

These five films are just here to represent their countries, and have no real chance at getting an Oscar nomination. It is my hope that the Oscar competition will help get their films seen and will help put their countries on the world cinematic map. 

All five come from nations that don't produce many films each year and all suffer from a number of handicaps. Documentary "Ukrainian Sheriffs" and mockumentary "Houston, We Have a Problem!" are said to be entertaining but lightweight. SLOVENIA's "Houston" was the surprise winner of the 2016 Slovenian Film Awards but its gleeful conspiracy theory about Yugoslavia's secret contributions to the NASA space program at the height of the Cold War is said by many reviewers to be more suited to a short film rather than a feature. Documentary "Ukrainian Sheriffs" was also a surprise choice to represent UKRAINE (beating two more heavily favored fiction features in a three-film race). It follows two small-town sheriffs in a remote town in Ukraine as developments whose problems spiral from simple village problems to more serious ones as the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine worsens over the course of filming. Reviews have been warm but the film will be unable to break out of the documentary ghetto. Ukraine's selection committee was plagued by internal problems last year, and were unable to get their act together to submit a film, so it's good to have them back in the race with a good movie. 

Newly-independent KOSOVO is also just happy to be here and recognized as an independent state (the UN is still deadlocked roughly 50-50 on that issue) and has sent "Home Sweet Home" as its third national submission. "Home Sweet Home" is about a man who returns to his family home years after being reported killed in battle during Kosovo's war of independence. It's an interesting idea, but reviews have not been entirely kind with many describing it as a missed opportunity. As for LATVIA, they've also chosen a divisive film, namely the B&W "Dawn", based on a Soviet urban myth of a patriotic Young Pioneer who "courageously" informed Soviet authorities about his own anti-Communist parents and who was lynched by the town as a result. Director Laila Pakalnina is one of Latvia's most famous directors but she has been passed over again and again by the Latvian Academy. The selection committee noted that "Dawn" is an "an intellectual, not emotionaI enjoyment" while the Hollywood Reporter's mostly positive review noted that some elements of the film "will test the patience" of viewers....Seems divisive and unlikely. 

LITHUANIA has selected Baltic co-production "Seneca's Day", which is probably the most obscure film on the list. This story follows a group of friends on the eve of Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 (Lithuania was the first republic to try to secede and they suffered greatly for it) and again 25 years later in the current-day. There's no buzz, no awards, no major festival appearances and no reason to think it will be selected. 

15. BULGARIA- "Losers"
14. ALBANIA- "Chromium"
13. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Lost in Munich"
12. ROMANIA- "Sieranevada"

I also don't out too much hope for these four films. 

The films from Albania and Bulgaria have gotten fairly good reviews for their coming-of-age stories of post-Communist teen angst, but I don't see them coming into play here. The B&W "Losers" from BULGARIA won the Grand Prize at the 2015 Moscow International Film Festival (how many movies are in Black and White this year?!?!?) for its story of four aimless teens but it has hardly been heard of since then. ALBANIA's "Chromium" (Karlovy Vary) is said to be an improvement on Bujar Alimani's 2011 submission "Amnesty". It follows a disaffected teen living in a rural mining town, and his stormy relationship with his mute mother and the man who comes in to her life. 

The films from the more established Czechs and Romanians are also unlikely choices. The CZECH REPUBLIC selected the weird, whimsical comedy "Lost in Munich", a film-within-a-film about an elderly parrot who holds the key. There are lots of topical issues here that American audiences and filmmakers will be able to relate to- the power of the media, distortions of history, the difficulties of financing and making a film- but there are also a lot of allusions to history and the Czech national character which will cause audiences to lose interest (as I sometimes did). As usual, many Oscar predictions are including ROMANIA as a contender, but I assure you it's not. Oscar has shown that they have no interest in Romania or its New Wave (The shortlisted "Beyond the Hills" was an anomaly and didn't make the Final Five) and "Sieranevada" (Cannes)- a three-hour, slow, plodding examination of a large family preparing for a funeral- has mixed reviews and is certainly not as warmly loved as "Death of Mr. Lazarescu", "Child's Pose" or "5 Months" which all notably failed to make the shortlist. 

11. HUNGARY- "Kills on Wheels"
10. MONTENEGRO- "The Black Pin"
9. CROATIA- "On the Other Side"
8. POLAND- "Afterimage"

So first off, POLAND is only going to get nominated if the Academy wants to honor the late Andrzej Wajda...."Afterimage" is a cerebral biopic of an obscure artist (at least in the West) who struggled under the censorship of the Communist era. Nobody says it's a bad film, but it's creaky and old-fashioned and biopics of unknown people rarely score well here. The way the voting is done is this category, you give the Large Committee gives the film a score....so you don't vote for Wajda, you give the film a number grade. And I think the Elite Committee will want to save so many films that "Afterimage" will be an afterthought. 

Neighboring HUNGARY (Karlovy Vary) has selected another bizarre film...this time a crime thriller about a group of handicapped youths who end up as hit men. It's certainly a unique way to revamp the tired old "underdogs can do anything!" genre, and critics point out that the film has a fresh new voice. But although reviews are good, there's no indication they're good enough. 

Finally we have two more films from the former Yugoslavia, each showcasing the region's two favorite genres- a drama about the wars of the 1990s and a sardonic, black comedy of village life. "On the Other Side" from CROATIA is probably one of the region's better "post-war" efforts, about a woman who receives a phone call out-of-the-blue from the estranged ex-husband who abandoned the family during the civil wars and who stands accused of serious war crimes. It's a psychological thriller with a fantastic lead actress performance but films about Balkan politics haven't been recognized in 15 years. Tiny MONTENEGRO had only two eligible films this year, but I think "The Black Pin" is going to be an audience pleaser though probably won't do well enough to make the Final Nine. It's a clever black comedy about a grumpy Orthodox priest who pisses off his local village by refusing to sell church land, thereby ruining the community's chance at a big real estate payout. The Balkan countries do dark comedy quite well and this is the film I most want to see this year. It's definitely Montenegro's best-ever chance at a nomination....though that's not saying much. 

7. ESTONIA- "Mother"
6. SERBIA- "Train Driver's Diary"
5. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "Death in Sarajevo"

It's also usually unwise to entirely count out Danis Tanovic who won this award for his debut feature "No Man's Land". Representing BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, "Death in Sarajevo" is a talky drama about a large number of characters working at a dysfunctional hotel preparing for an EU-sponsored event commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the start of WWI (which, as history students will remember, broke out in Sarajevo....then a provincial city of Austria-Hungary). It won two awards in Berlin, but critics have been divided and it's probably not good enough for an elite save. 

If Bosnia is modeling itself on "European arthouse" ESTONIA's "Mother" is channeling the Coen Brothers with this darkly comic mystery about a devoted mother taking full-time care of her comatose son who was shot by an unknown assailant who likely comes from her close-knit local community. Probably too small to get noticed, but one of this year's more interesting entries. Also in the "dark comedy" mold, we have "Train Driver's Diary" from SERBIA, which dwells on the fact that Serbian train drivers statistically kill 15-20 numbers of people during their careers. Comedy often loses something in translation and the Balkan's wicked sense of tragicomedy hasn't found favor with the Academy since the aforementioned "No Man's Land" fifteen years ago. Still, this clever Serbian film has enough interesting characters and good will to make it somewhat mainstream and there are clearly some fans out there....

4. RUSSIA- "Paradise"
3. MACEDONIA- "The Liberation of Skopje"

These WWII films are a bit more Oscar's cup of tea.....Oscar loves watching children struggle with the horrors of war, so "The Liberation of Skopje" (MACEDONIA) and its 11-year old protagonist could be in with a chance. Though few have seen the film, this historical drama is supposed to be very good and fairly relatable though I worry that Balkan politics and intrigue (which was particularly complicated during WWII in Macedonia, with German and Bulgarian occupiers) will confuse some viewers. But they will understand the divided loyalties of a young boy whose father goes off to fight the Nazis while his mother becomes involved with a German officer. It could surprise. 

RUSSIA has also selected a baity World War II drama (in B&W), about a Russian noblewoman jailed in Nazi-occupied France for helping Jewish refugees. Though reviews have been mixed, it won Best Director in Venice and is said to be a technically impressive film. The film's grim story, abstract style and odd "interview-style" scenes are not popular however, reviews remind me of Hungary's "The Notebook" which was shortlisted a few years ago despite the fact that nobody liked it very much either. 

2. GEORGIA- "House of Others"
1. SLOVAKIA- "Eva Nova"

I actually don't think any of the Eastern European films will make the shortlist, but if any of them do, I predict it will be one of these two well-reviewed debut features from the newly independent states. 

The ghostly "House of Others" from GEORGIA won the East of the West Award at Karlovy Vary and has gotten great reviews for its story of a Georgian family forced to flee ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia. This obscure secessionist conflict has already sparked Oscar's fancy twice (with the Oscar-nominated "Tangerines" and shortlisted "Corn Island") and the atmosphere film reminds me a bit of  "Corn Island". 

As for "Eva Nova", it only has one thing going for it- it's one of the best films of the year. However, we see year after year that "quality" does not necessarily get you a spot in the next round and "Eva Nova" has the added disadvantage of having a lead character that is a woman (a brave Oscar-worthy performance by veteran actress Emília Vásáryová. It's a fairly simple story- an aging star and recovering alcoholic tries to make amends with her estranged son- but it's a brilliant film. Based on quality alone, I'm predicting a surprise #1 ranking in the region but no shortlist spot. Alas, we'll never know!

Ultimately, these two films are probably too small to make it. 

Now the Statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 24

Number of countries participating this year:  20

Number of debuts: Zero

Number of countries opting out:  Poor ARMENIA was unfairly disqualified for their big-budget epic “Earthquake”.  Not sure why AZERBAIJAN failed to send a film, as they had quite a few to choose from. MOLDOVA probably didn’t have anything eligible (though the new comedy “Eastern Business” premiered in October 2016 and will be eligible next year); BELARUS hasn’t sent anything since 1996.

Already Seen: Only 2- The films from the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
:  Dark comedy “The Black Pin” from Montenegro! Looks great!

Feature Debuts:  Seven. Faton Bajraktari (Kosovo), Roman Bondarchuk (Ukraine), Rusudan Glurjidze (Georgia), Ivan Marinovic (Montenegro), Marko Skop (Slovakia)  and Ziga Virc (Slovenia) plus veteran actor Rade Serbedzija (now representing his newly adopted country of Macedonia).

Number of Female DirectorsTHREE. Kadri Kõusaar (Estonia), Rusudan Glurjidze (Georgia) and Laila Pakalnina (Latvia)

Oldest and Youngest Directors: It would be hard to beat 90-year old Andrzej Wajda of Poland who passed away in October (and who was probably only chosen because “Afterimage” was clearly going to be his last film). The youngest is 29-year old Slovenian director Žiga Virc.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:   A lot of the Eastern European films are multilingual (i.e. Bosnia, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Russia and Slovenia), reflecting the area’s history and changing borders. But four films are in Serbo-Croatian, two are in Albanian, with one each mostly in Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovene and Ukrainian
Number of Comedies: Czech Republic, Montenegro and Serbia have selected comedies, and some might add Estonia as well.

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  Ukraine has selected a documentary and so has Slovenia....or have they??  J

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Hmm…Not many. Four at most and that’s pushing it. 

Highest profile film: This is a pretty low-key lot, but Romanian New Wave “Sieranevada” (Cannes) and Russia’s “Paradise” (Best Director, Venice) have gotten the most traction.

Oscar History:   Obviously the biggest contender here is the late Andrzej Wajda who represented Poland nine times, winning four Oscar nominations plus an Honorary Award in 2000 for lifetime achievement. Danis Tanovic of Bosnia is also an Oscar winner, having won for “No Man’s Land”. He is now representing his country for a record fourth time with “Death in Sarajevo”.

Bujar Alimani (“Amnesty”), Andrei Konchalovsky (“House of Fools”), Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”), Kristijonas Vildziunas (“Back to Your Arms”) and Petr Zelenka (“The Karamazovs”) have each represented their country once before while Croatian director Danilo Serbedzija (“72 Days”) is now representing Macedonia. Zrinko Ogresta of Croatia has had his films selected twice (“Red Dust” and “Washed Out”).

Hoping to make the shortlist for the first time are:  Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Slovenia and Ukraine plus Slovakia which won the Oscar for "A Shop on Main Street" as part of Czechoslovakia.

Best & Worst Decisions: Croatia, Georgia, Macedonia and Montenegro made wise choices while the worst decision was Poland which arranged an early qualifying release for the creaky “Afterimage” to honor a dying Wajda, when “The Last Family” could have done so much better.  

Controversies and Changes:   Armenia unfairly disqualified! The Armenians decided to return to the Oscar race after sending only two films in the past decade. They announced a three-film shortlist and selected big-budget “Earthquake” as their contender. AMPAS mysteriously and unfairly disqualified them for having insufficient creative control over this Russian co-production while Austria was reinstated even though their film was far less “Austrian”. The director of “Earthquake” is Armenian-born, Russian-based Sarik Andreasyan. It seems AMPAS’ objection may have been that the crew had a lot of ethnic Armenians who may not have actually held Armenian citizenship. Ridiculous, especially when they accepted Austria’s appeal.
Most Notable Omissions:  As I mentioned, acclaimed biopic “The Last Family” from Poland was considered a real contender. Many were disappointed that Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” (which won Best Director at Cannes) failed to be selected to rep Romania.
Familiar Faces:   No world-famous people, though ex-Yugoslav stars Rade Serbedzija (“Liberation of Skopje”) and Lazar Ristovski (“Train Driver’s Diary”, “On the Other Side”) will be familiar to watchers of this category.

Last year's race:   I only got to see four of last year’s films including the equally charming drama “Bota” from Albania (B+) and road movie “Aferim!” from Romania (B+). I also managed to see the truly terrible “Summer of Sangaile” (D) from Lithuania and the rather average “The High Sun” (B) from Croatia. I still haven’t seen “Son of Saul”. Too grim. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

2017 Foreign Oscar Predictions- WESTERN EUROPE (17 films)

So I moved from Korea to the United States in June and then again from the United States to Pakistan in August so I didn’t have time to do my usual country-to-country Oscar predictions but I have been following the race. 

Of the 112 countries that have submitted films over the years, an incredible 88 announced that they were entering the Oscar race. 85 films were accepted, including wartorn YEMEN, which entered for the first time. Four films appear to have been disqualified, including what appear to be incredibly arbitrary and unfair disqualifications for the struggling film industries of AFGHANISTAN and ARMENIA. More on that later.

     I’ve divided the 85 official contenders into five groups this year:
I-              WESTERN EUROPE (17 films)
II-             EASTERN EUROPE (20 films)
III-            THE AMERICAS (15 films)
IV-            ASIA (18 films)
V-             AFRICA, THE MIDDLE EAST AND OCEANIA (15 films)


17. LUXEMBOURG- “Voices from Chernobyl”
16. PORTUGAL- “Letters From War”
15. GREECE- “Chevalier”
14. AUSTRIA- “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe”

13. UNITED KINGDOM- “Under the Shadow”

Luxembourg and Portugal are the only two Western European countries never to be nominated and that tradition will continue again this year. Tiny LUXEMBOURG has selected a feature documentary of the acclaimed but "unfilmable" novel "Voices From Chernobyl" by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Told largely in French-language voice-overs, it follows the present-day lives of those who survived the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of the early 1980s. It's grim and documentaries rarely score here....Luxembourg is just happy to be represented. PORTUGAL has also selected a movie told largely in voice-overs, in this case the autobiographical musings of acclaimed Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes in "Letters From War". The B+W film is about Antunes' time serving in the Portuguese colonial army during the Angolan war of independence in the early 1970s. This was a turning point in Portuguese history with parallels to the American war in Vietnam.....but Hollywood will neither know nor care that much about Portuguese history. 

In the category of "not good enough", we have Austria and Greece. Like Portugal, AUSTRIA has selected a biopic of an acclaimed local author, in this case Jewish writer Stefan Zweig who fled his country for obvious reasons in the 1930s and eventually committed suicide in exile. Zweig is more famous than Antunes but he's not well-known in the West and though the film was a hit locally, Western audiences have mostly found the film to be well-meaning but terribly dull. 

GREECE has selected testosterone-heavy comedy "Chevalier", about a group of friends on a boat who talk.....and talk and.....well, that's about it. The friends decide to play a game to see who is "the best, generally", rating each other on how they walk, talk, play games etc....Like a lot of new Greek films, the premise has a lot of potential but doesn't do much with it. "Chevalier" is a mostly forgettable film (with the lowest user rating on IMDB) with little character development and does not look to be another dark horse like "Dogtooth".  

The UNITED KINGDOM has selected the Persian-language horror film "Under the Shadow", the feature debut of Iran-born British director Babak Anvari. This claustrophobic thriller follows a mother and her young daughter living in a Teheran apartment plagued by supernatural goings-on during the incessant Iraqi bombings of the 1980s. The film starts off slow but progresses towards a thrilling and frightening conclusion. However, Oscar has no taste for horror films and better, more mainstream films like Spain's "The Orphanage" and buzzier films like Austria's "Goodnight Mommy" (which I didn't like) have failed to make the shortlist meaning "Shadow" won't have any luck here. 


12. BELGIUM- “The Ardennes”
11. ITALY- “Fire at Sea”
10. SWITZERLAND- “Ma vie de courgette”
9. ICELAND- “Sparrows

With 85 countries competing, smaller films are going to get lost in the mix. And that's what likely to happen to Belgium and Iceland. BELGIUM has selected "The Ardennes", a crime thriller focusing on a love triangle between two small-time criminal brothers and a local girl, after one brother is released from prison. Reviews have been positive but unenthusiastic and the film hasn't won any awards outside of Belgium. Ditto for ICELAND's coming-of-ager "Sparrows" follows a teenaged boy in Reykjavik forced to move in with his estranged father and grandmother in a rural village when his mom moves abroad. I've heard it gets a bit dark.... Reviews are better than "Ardennes" but not good enough for an Oscar. 

Animated films and documentaries are rarely recognized outside of their own categories, meaning it's an uphill battle for Italy and Switzerland. SWITZERLAND's French-language "Ma vie de courgette" (My Life as a Zucchini), about the life of an orphaned boy, is actually supposed to be one of the most tender and affecting youth films of the year....but clocking in at 70 minutes (the shortest film in the competition) it's still a cartoon about a boy with blue hair and it will have more luck in the less competitive Animated Film category (where it's also competing). Many Oscar prognosticators are buzzing about ITALY's documentary "Fire At Sea". Meryl Streep has been a vocal supporter of the film and it focuses on one of the most important issues facing the world today- namely, the refugee crisis overwhelming the countries of Europe and, in particular, the tiny, peaceful Italian island of Lampedusa, where boats filled with desperate migrants have been arriving for years. What's the problem? Well, it's a terrible film! If you're looking for a film about refugees, you'll have to go elsewhere as 80% of this film follows a local family as they do things like make the bed, get eye exams and explain which kind of tree makes the best slingshot. This is supposedly meant to contrast the peaceful life of locals with the lives of the refugees but it's poorly done and most people I know who have seen the film are sorely disappointed. NO CHANCE. 


8. NORWAY- “The King’s Choice”
7. SPAIN- “Julieta”
6. FRANCE- "Elle"

These three films will probably do well in the rankings but ultimately I fear they will fall just short of making the 9-film shortlist. Directors Pedro Almodovar and Paul Verhoeven and Best Actress contender Isabelle Huppert are probably the highest-profile figures on the entire list (though the all-star French cast of "It's Only the End of the World" might disagree) while Norway has selected the kind of big-budget World War II epic that this category has traditionally honored.

NORWAY's "The King's Choice" is a war movie with heart, focusing on the momentous decision of the King of Norway not to surrender to the Nazis and to continue fighting at great cost to the nation, unlike the other three Nordic countries (Denmark was forced to surrender, Finland agreed to a partial alliance with Germany and Sweden stayed neutral). It was a box-office hit in Norway and technically looks very polished. However, I remember when a similar Norwegian resistance film ("Max Manus") was touted as a favorite for a nom and failed even to be shortlisted. Oscar seems less interested in WWII lately (though they still enjoy the Holocaust) and I wonder if this story is a bit too "nationally focused". Will Americans understand the importance of this King and this decision to Norway's history? I haven't seen it yet. 

“Elle” from FRANCE stars Isabelle Huppert as a successful career woman who is sexually assaulted by a mystery man and who sets out an elaborate plan for revenge against him. It’s a mystery, it’s a black comedy, it’s a thriller. Verhoeven may be best known for trashy films like “Showgirls” and “Basic Instinct” and action movies like “Total Recall” and “Starship Troopers”, but he started out making arthouse dramas in his native Holland, including Oscar nominee “Turkish Delight”. He’s a crowdpleaser who can make critically acclaimed films when he wants to. “Elle” has great reviews and Isabelle Huppert is supposed to be absolutely amazing. So why do I have it in fourth place? Well, I’m not sure a darkly comic revenge tale about rape will appeal to either the stuffy mainstream committee or the arthouse elite committee. It may just miss out with each group. Still, it’s never wise to count out France and it’s definitely in with a chance.

The same goes for SPAIN, Almodovar and his latest, “Julieta”, about a woman who attempts to reconnect with her estranged daughter. Hollywood loves Almodovar a lot more than Spain does and they proved that by nominating him four times, including wins for “Talk to Her” (Best Screenplay) and “All About My Mother” (Best Foreign Language Film). That said, everyone agrees that “Julieta” is generally a good movie but not his best work. It will be an uphill climb in such a competitive year. 

5. SWEDEN- “A Man Called Ove”
4. FINLAND- “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”

I think two of these films can make the shortlist, but I keep changing my mind about which two. According to the critics, "Olli Maki" is easily the strongest and "A Man Called Ove" is easily the weakest...but sadly quality is often of secondary importance ("Labyrinth of Lies"?!). I haven't seen any of these three yet so it's hard to judge. 

Paula van der Oest of THE NETHERLANDS has shocked Oscar prognosticators twice with Oscar nominee "Zus & Zo" and almost-nominee "Lucia de B." (which very possibly came in sixth place despite being little more than a very pleasant TV movie of the week) and I think she may do it again with "Tonio", a more serious film based on a "true-story" novel of a middle-class couple dealing with the death of their 21-year old son in a biking accident. It's an emotional hook and best of all it's accessible and "universal" (unlike historical and cultural dramas that may demand some background knowledge). The Hollywood Reporter concedes that "like the mourning process it depicts, it too is sometimes messy and incoherent" but I think it will be one of the darlings of the large committee. 

"A Man Called Ove", the gentle comedy from SWEDEN, is also accessible and word has it that the Oscar committee really enjoyed its simple, paint-by-numbers story of a cranky, suicidal 60-year old widower whose life is changed when a friendly new neighbor and her family move in next door. No one believes it's one of the best films of the year, but most people find it thoroughly enjoyable and those kinds of universally "high" scores may win it a place in the Top Six from the larger group. The fact that it's about an old man (matching the age and gender of most of the Large Committee) is a bonus. 

That leaves us with FINLAND and Cannes Un Certain Regard winner "The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki", a B+W boxing drama about real-life local legend Olli Maki. Oscar loves boxing movies and underdog dramas and this is said to be a really special film. Finland doesn't often do well in this category but I think "Olli Maki" is going to be one of the films that gets saved by the Elite Committee. It's on the bubble.


2. GERMANY- “Toni Erdmann”
1. DENMARK- “Land of Mine”

Germany and Denmark are probably the two most successful countries of the past ten years. Each has made the shortlist six times out of the last ten years.....With over 80 countries, that's pretty insane and I predict both countries make it again this year. I'm actually predicting an Oscar win for DENMARK and their "Land of Mine", about Nazi German POW soldiers forced by the victorious Danes to clear fields of land mines that the Germans used to terrorize occupied Denmark during the war. The POWs are mostly young German conscripts and the film is supposed to tug at the heartstrings with this complicated moral dilemma. Oscar loves WWII, Denmark and moral dilemmas, and the film's outstanding acting and technical credits (three European Film Awards in the tech categories) will appeal to both halves of the Academy. It's in. 

I also have confidence in "Toni Erdmann", a relationship dramedy about a woman and her complicated relationship with her father. It won the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes 2016 and was named as one of the "Best 100 Films of the 21st Century" by the BBC (the only film of 2016 on the list). It's a bit overlong but reviews have been universally positive (and the highest user rating on IMDB though that counts for very little) and I expect it will get saved if it doesn't make it through the larger committee. Consider both of these films very safe. 

Now the Statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 20 

Number of countries participating this year:  17.

Number of debuts: Zero. 

Number of countries opting out:  3- IRELAND (who probably had no non-English films to submit this year) as well as tiny GREENLAND (pop: 50,000) and MALTA (pop: 300,000), whose “Do-Re-Mi-Fa” appears to have had too much English. 

Already Seen: 4- Greece, Italy, Sweden and the UK

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Definitely Isabelle Huppert and her sadistic tendencies in “Elle” from France! 

Feature Debuts:  FOUR. Babak Anvari (UK), Claude Barras (Switzerland), Juho Kuosmanen (Finland) and Robin Pront (Belgium)

Number of Female Directors FOUR. Two German ladies- Maren Ade (representing Germany) and Maria Schrader (inexplicably representing Austria) plus Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece) and Paula van der Oest (Netherlands)

Oldest and Youngest Directors:         Veteran director Paul Verhoeven is 78……Belgium’s Robin Pront just turned 30.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Three films are in French (France, Luxembourg and Switzerland) and two each are in German (Austria and Germany) and Dutch (Belgium and Netherlands). The other ten are in Danish, Finnish, Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish.   The WWII films from Denmark and Norway also feature quite a bit of German. 

Number of Comedies: Greece’s unfunny “Chevalier” is the only real comedy, though Germany and Sweden have selected comedy-dramas 

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  Switzerland has selected an animated film for the first time. Italy and Luxembourg have selected documentaries.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: It’s a strong roster of films. I’d say seven- maybe eight- are in with a real chance. 

Highest profile film: The buzz has been evenly divided between France’s “Elle”, Germany’s “Toni Erdmann” and Spain’s “Julieta”.  But remember buzz doesn’t always mean love. 

Oscar History:  Our only Oscar winner is Pedro Almodovar, who won Best Original Screenplay for “Talk to Her” and Best Foreign Film for “All About My Mother” and has two more nominations for Directing (“Talk to Her”) and Foreign Film (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”). This is his sixth time representing Spain. 

Paul Verhoeven represented his native Netherlands four times, getting an Oscar nomination way back in 1974 for “Turkish Delight”. He was also shortlisted for “Blackbook” in 2007.  Paula van der Oest of the Netherlands received an Oscar nomination in 2003 for “Zus & Zo” and was shortlisted for “Lucia de B.” more than a decade later. Iceland’s Runar Runarsson was nominated for Best Short Film in 2006 and repped Iceland in the Foreign Film race in 2011 for “Volcano”. 

Pol Cruchten is representing Luxembourg for the third time after feature “Little Secrets” and documentary “Never Die Young.  Erik Poppe is representing Norway for a second time after “Hawaii, Oslo” in 2004.  And Athina Rachel Tsangari represented Greece for “Attenberg”, one of the worst Foreign Oscar submissions of all time. 

Best & Worst Decisions: I think Denmark, Finland and Netherlands made particularly clever choices. Austria (which selected a film from neighboring Germany) and Italy (which chose a dull documentary over more appropriate films like “Perfect Strangers” and “Indivisible”) chose foolishly. 

Controversies and Changes:  AMPAS originally disqualified the Austrian entry for not having enough Austrian content but it was mysteriously reinstated. Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) criticized the Italian Academy for sending “Fire at Sea” over runner-up “Indivisible”, which lost by one vote. He correctly argued that they had missed the chance to promote two Italian films (since “Fire at Sea” is already lobbying for the Best Documentary category). 

Most Notable Omissions: FRANCE was forced to dump baity nun drama “The Innocents” and Francois Ozon’s B+W arthouse “Frantz”.  

Familiar Faces:  Obviously the biggest star is Isabelle Huppert, who is campaigning for a Best Actress nod for “Elle”. Serbian actor Rade Serbedzija (who directed the Macedonian film) co-stars in Iceland’s “Sparrows”. And though they aren’t famous, I’m excited to see the Flemish stars of “Borgman” (Jan Bijvoet and Jeroen Perceval) reteaming together in “The Ardennes”.

Last year's race:  Western Europe hogged six of the nine shortlist spots last year, though they ultimately only got two nominations (for Denmark and France). I managed to see twelve of the films. 
Belgium’s “The Brand New Testament” was my favorite film of 2015 (and thus my pick for the Oscar), though I also loved “Mustang” (A-). I’m afraid I wasn’t crazy about the rest: “Rams” (B+), “The Wave” (B+), “Viva” (B), “Baby (a)lone” (Luxembourg), “Goodnight Mommy” (B-), “Xenia” (B-), “Under Milk Wood” (B-), “Loreak” (C+), “Labyrinth of Lies” (C) and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch” (D-).