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.
4. FINLAND- “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”
3. NETHERLANDS- “Tonio”
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-).