Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2017 Foreign Oscar Predictions- THE AMERICAS (15 films)


And here's the final batch of films, representing the Americas.....

OH, HELL NO!

15. PERU- "Videophilia (And Other Viral Syndromes)
14. DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- "Sugar Fields" (Flor de Azucar)

"Videophilia" from PERU is probably the least-likely of the 85 films. That doesn't mean it's the worst film, but one look at the plot (A teenage girl from Lima meets a boy online, and he's obsessed with conspiracies, porn and prophecies. When they meet in real life, supernatural events begin to unfold around them.) or the trailer with its hallucinogenic, blurry images will let you know that this "out-there" teen drama is not getting anywhere near the Hollywood Theatre. As for the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC, "Sugar Fields" is one of the only films on the list that actually got bad reviews from critics (and currently has the lowest rating on IMDB- 4.6). Nobody seems to like the film, which is said to be pretty but confusing, featuring families suffering under the years of the Trujillo dictatorship.


OUT OF THE RUNNING


13. COLOMBIA- "Alias Maria"
12. BOLIVIA- "Sealed Cargo" (Carga sellada)

11. PANAMA- "Salsipuedes"
10. COSTA RICA- "About Us" (Entonces nosotros)


This year's two films from Central America should be proud to represent their countries. PANAMA has selected low-budget barrio drama "Salsipuedes", about a 20-year old Panamanian teen raised in the USA, who returns home for his grandfather's funeral and meets his father who's currently serving time in prison. COSTA RICA has selected quirky romantic comedy/road movie "About Us", about a man who goes on a road trip to rekindle his romance with his bored girlfriend, only to meet another woman on the way. The trailer looks absolutely charming and ripe for an American remake. Both these films are probably good but not the sort of movies that get recognized here.

COLOMBIA has selected "Alias Maria", about a pregnant child soldier fighting in the jungle. Though this worked for "War Witch" a few years ago, most critics found "Maria" to be a bit disappointing and the film is described as cold and unemotional despite the serious plight of its protagonist. That leaves BOLIVIA which has selected eco-thriller/modern-day western "Sealed Cargo". The two reviews I've read say almost exactly the same things- it's entertaining and funny and tries really hard, though both mention the film "lacks artistry". In other words, it's not a great film, but it's a fun ride. And sometimes isn't that why we go the movies? For the record, "Sealed Cargo" follows a crew guarding a train carrying toxic waste through the highlands of Bolivia.

GOOD BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH


9. CUBA- "The Companion" (El acompanante)
8. MEXICO- "Desierto"
7. URUGUAY- "Breadcrumbs" (Migas de pan)
6. ECUADOR- "Such Is Life in the Tropics" (Sin muertos no hay carnaval)

This group includes two obscure South American dramas with zero buzz and two North American films that have been shown in the States to mixed reaction.

I actually predicted MEXICO would send "Desierto" last year, not knowing that the film wouldn't premiere in Mexico until April 2016. It got mostly poor reviews when it premiered in Toronto 2015 so I basically forgot about it until Mexico selected it as their nominee this year. "Desierto" bills itself as a thriller but it's actually more correctly termed a "horror movie" as a psychotic American redneck (presumably a Trump voter) hunts down a group of Mexicans who are crossing the border illegally. It's certainly very topical but the over-the-top acting by the loony Yanqui (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, "Walking Dead") and graphic violence won't win it any fans here. Besides, Mexico almost always chooses these border thrillers year after year ("Miss Bala", "Backyard", "600 Miles") but none of them have ever been nominated.

Two of South America's smallest countries- Ecuador and Uruguay- have a slightly better chance. URUGUAY has chosen "Breadcrumbs", starring Argentine-Spanish actress Cecilia Roth as an adult survivor of sexual violence, dating from the time when she was an activist protesting the military dictatorship of the 70s and 80s. The one review I've seen (the Hollywood Reporter) says it's an important topic but it's "schlocky" and "unexciting". Sebastian Cordero of ECUADOR reportedly just missed out on an Oscar nomination over a decade ago for the all-but-forgotten thriller "Cronicas", starring John Leguizamo and Damien Alcazar. This year, Ecuador's most famous international director is back with "Such is Life in the Tropics", though the Spanish title is better translated as "It's not a real party unless someone dies". It's set amidst the intrigue of a group of land-grabbers trying to evict poor slumdwellers from their homes, with numerous stories skillfully weaved together. Cordero is a talented director and this might be a contender if it had more buzz.

DARK HORSE POSSIBILITIES
5. VENEZUELA- "From Afar" (Desde alla)
4. ARGENTINA- "The Distinguished Citizen"
3. CANADA- "It's Only the End of the World" (Juste le fin du monde)

These three films have an uphill battle for a number of reasons.

Desde alla from VENEZUELA is a great film. It's original, it's unpredictable and it won the Grand Prize at the 2015 Venice Film Festival. Of the twelve films I've actually seen (out of 85), it's also the most memorable, with the ending continuing to raise tantalizing questions (though not in the WTF way that some Euro directors operate). However, the film is LGBT (rarely rewarded here, though last year's "Viva" was an exception), it's gritty and urban (no beautiful landscapes here) and some people frankly dislike it. The plot revolves around a 50-year old gay man in Venezuela who engages in psychological mind games with a young gang member. The less you know before you see it, the better.

Speaking of LGBT, Xavier Dolan is back with "It's Only the End of the World", a French drama representing CANADA with an all-star cast (including Oscar nominee Marion Cotillard) about a writer who assembles his dysfunctional family all together to tell them he's dying. This is also a hard one. Oscar has shown no love for Dolan's top-notch queer dramas ("Mommy" and the brilliant "I Killed My Mother") but this one is different. Reviews have been decidely mixed and critical of the screaming matches that often mark Dolan's films, but it still managed to win two awards at Cannes and Oscar loves French films.....This may have a better shot than the better-reviewed "Mommy".

Speaking of mixed reviews, ARGENTINA's comedy "The Distinguished Citizen" is about an award-winning author based in Europe who has made a career out of telling less-than-flattering stories about the rural countryside town where he was raised. So, when he returns home after decades away, some locals are excited while others less than impressed . This sounds like a great idea but it seems to be "love it or hate it". I've heard some say the film is brilliant while others say it's amateurish. Most say it's a crowdpleaser. This divisive reaction doesn't bode well when you're competing against 84 other movies.

FRONT-RUNNERS


2. BRAZIL- "Little Secret"
1. CHILE- "Neruda"

Many are predicting Pablo Larrain's biopic "Neruda" from CHILE will be the film to beat this year. It's gotten good reviews for being a "different kind" of biopic as it creates a fictional "chase" as right-wing Chilean authorities pursue the Nobel Prize-winning poet for his political views. And I agree "Neruda" has an excellent chance at being selected. But there are no locks in this category and I think "Neruda" will be on the bubble just as Larrain's "Club" (which was not nominated) and "No" (which was) likely were. The prolific Larrain also directed this year's wannabe Best Picture nominee "Jackie" (another biopic). If "Neruda" fails to make the Top Six will the elite committee save it? Or decide that Larrain will have a chance elsewhere? Hard to tell.


As for BRAZIL....This is a tough one. The film is a drama telling three separate stories, all connected by one "little secret". The film has not gotten the best reviews but it seems to be exactly the sort of strong narrative drama that the large committee goes for. The film is roughly 40% (I've heard different numbers from different people) in English, which could be a positive thing for voters weary of watching 85 films with subtitles. Ultimately, I think Brazil will have a hard time making the Top Six and the elite committee won't vote for it....But it's definitely a stronger possibility than people think.



Now the statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 19

Number of countries participating this year:  15

Number of debuts: Zero

Number of countries opting out: Four. PARAGUAY entered the race for the first time last year and this year they publicly launched an open call for submissions....but they didn't send a film for unknown reasons. Also absent: Guatemala and Nicaragua, plus PUERTO RICO which (unfairly) is no longer invited. 

Already Seen: Just one- "Desde Alla" from VENEZUELA. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: I'm a huge Xavier Dolan fan, so without a doubt it's "It's Only the End of the World" from CANADA. 

Feature Debuts:  Only three countries selected features debuts, namely: Juan Daniel F. Molero (Peru), Ricardo Aguilar Navarro + Manolito Rodriguez (Panama) and Lorenzo Vigas (Venezuela)

Number of Female Directors Just two- Manane Rodríguez (Uruguay) and 74-year old Julia Vargas Weise (Bolivia). 

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Even after years of making films, 27-year old Xavier Dolan of Canada is still the youngest in the group (and possibly of all the directors....Lebanon's director was also born in 1989). The oldest is Julia Vargas Weis

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Unsurprisingly, most of the films (13 to be exact) are in Spanish. The other two are in French and Portuguese, though the Brazilian film is said to be nearly 50% English. 

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries: Zero

Number of comedies:  TWO. Argentina's satirical "Distinguished Citizen" and Costa Rica's rom-com "About Us", though Peru's messy abdurdist "Videophilia" could be anything really. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Five

Highest profile film:  Without a doubt, Pablo Larrain's "Neruda" from Chile. 

Oscar History: Pablo Larrain, representing Chile a record fourth time, was nominated on his second try for "No". He's the only Oscar nominee in contention from Latin America. Mexican writer/director Jonas Cuaron was recognized as one of the producers of "Gravity" for the BAFTAs but was not recognized at the Oscars being that he did not receive a Best Picture nomination (and "Gravity" famously failed to get a Screenplay nomination). 

Xavier Dolan of Canada ("I Killed My Mother", "Mommy") is on his third try at Oscar while Sebastian Cordero of Ecuador ("Cronicas") and Pavel Giroud of Cuba ("La edad de la peseta") are on their second. 

Only Canada and Argentina have won this award. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Peru have made it to the nomination stage, while Venezuela has been shortlisted once. The six smaller countries (Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama, Uruguay) are waiting for their first nomination although it likely won't be this year. 

Controversies and Changes:  Brazil, Brazil, Brazil! A political controversy erupted in Brazil when critic Marcus Petrucelli was announced as one of the members of the national Oscar selection committee. Petrucelli had criticized Kleber Mendonça Filho, the director of  this year's Brazilian favorite "Aquarius" as well as Brazil's so-so 2013 submission "Neighbouring Sounds", for his political protests at Cannes against the current interim government. Filho and many other high-profile Brazilian filmmakers cried foul, saying that Petrucelli's participation amounted to political interference. Directors of several films due to compete against "Aquarius'" (including "Neon Bull" and "Don't Call Me Son") withdrew in support of Filho. In the end, Brazil picked the Oscar-friendly "Little Secret" over the more daring "Aquarius". Was the decision politically motivated? Possibly, yes. 

Most Notable Omissions:  Well..."Aquarius" is definitely the most notable omission, though I'm not sure Oscar would have liked it better than the more traditional "Little Secret". Also missing: "The Chosen Ones" (Las Eligidas) from Mexico, Philippe Falardeau's "My Internship in Canada" (which I thought was a shoo-in to represent Canada) and "The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis" from Argentina. 

And since I like to see comedies in the mix, I was disappointed not to see "Las toninas van al Este" (Uruguay) and "La Familia Reyna" (which went to the Goyas for the Dominican Republic) in the race. 

Familiar Faces:  Where to start?! How's this for a Top 10: Gael Garcia Bernal, Gael Garcia Bernal (again!), Vincent Cassel, Diego Cataño ("Narcos"), Alfredo Castro (also twice), Marion Cotillard, Fionnula Flanagan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cecilia Roth and Lea Seydoux! That's a lot of familiar faces, although most of them are representing the big countries- Canada, Chile, Brazil and Mexico though Almodovar muse Roth headlines the obscure Uruguayan submission. 

Last year's race:   Last year, 14 of these countries announced films (though Panama's "Box 25" didn't appear on the final list), including first-time nominee Colombia. This group also had the most high-profile snubs (Argentina, Brazil and Chile). I'm shocked that I only got to see four of these 14 films. "Embrace of the Serpent" was great (though not an easy watch) and the best filmmaking achievement, although I found Guatemala's "Ixcanul" slightly more interesting....."Sand Dollars" from the Dominican Republic was of interest mostly due to its great acting whereas I hated Canada's lame "Felix and Meira" (D). 

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