Wednesday, December 13, 2017


I think the shortlist will be announced tomorrow but it may be today so I'm publishing now even though I wanted to wait until I saw the films from Finland and Kosovo tonight. 

The Golden Globe nominations came out Monday and it was good news for Cambodia, Chile, Germany, Russia and Sweden, but bad news for front-runners "BPM", "The Insult" and "Foxtrot". It's true the Globes do go for big names (which could explain all but Russia), but there's usually a lot of overlap with the Oscar shortlist. So, this really helps those five countries. 

Even though we have 92 submissions, I don't really think there are more films than usual with a chance. In fact, I really only see about thirty that could make it to the next round. 

I managed to see 27 of the nominees this year (and I'll see many more this month). So far, my favorite films were Germany and Bulgaria, though . 

Here are my predictions.....I haven't forgotten the poorly reviewed "Zama" or the dull "Summer 1993". I don't think they'll score here.

1.      RUSSIA- “Loveless"
2.    ISRAEL- “Foxtrot”
3.    GERMANY- “In the Fade”                            
4.       CHILE- “A Fantastic Woman”                   
5.       LEBANON- “The Insult”  (SAVED)  
6.       FRANCE- “180 Battements par minute” (SAVED)                            
7.       CAMBODIA- “First They Killed My Father” 
8.     HUNGARY- “Of Body and Soul”  (SAVED)
9.       BRAZIL- “Bingo- The King of the Mornings"

10.    JAPAN- “Her Love Boils Bathwater”  
11.   ALGERIA- “Road to Istanbul”           
12.   SOUTH AFRICA- “The Wound”      
13.   CANADA- “Hochelaga- Land of Souls”                          
14.   TURKEY- “Ayla- The Daughter of War”    
15.   NEPAL- “White Sun”                                        
16.   ITALY- “A Ciambra”  
17.   DENMARK- “You Disappear” 
18.   BULGARIA- “Glory”                                                                                 
19.   SWEDEN- “The Square”        
20.   SINGAPORE- “Pop Aye”
21.   LATVIA- “Chronicles of Melanie"
22.   SOUTH KOREA- “A Taxi Driver”                   
23.   KYRGYZSTAN- “Centaur”
24.   GEORGIA- “Scary Mother”                          

25.   MEXICO- “Tempestad”        
26.   INDIA- “Newton”
27.   POLAND- “Spoor”                                            
28.   FINLAND- “Tom of Finland”                         
29.   SLOVENIA- “The Miner”
30.   PHILIPPINES- “Birdshot”                                             

31.   PARAGUAY- “Los buscadores”
32.   AUSTRIA- “Happy End” 
33.   VENEZUELA- “El Inca”
34.   NORWAY- “Thelma”
35.   ESTONIA- “November”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Foreign Oscar Predictions- the Submissions from Africa, the Middle East and Oceania (17 films)

I'm publishing this last group even though it's not finished, since the shortlist may be announced tomorrow....

Congrats to Africa for submitting a record eight films! Ironically, three of the "African" directors were born in France, one in Brazil and a fifth is an Afrikaner. 

14. TUNISIA- “The Last of Us”
15. SYRIA- “Little Gandhi”
16. AUSTRALIA- “The Space Between”
17. KENYA- “Kati Kati”

Wartorn SYRIA is in the race for the first time with documentary "Little Gandhi", about a Syrian peace activist. I have no idea how the film managed to get a qualifying seven-day release in the country (which is nearly destroyed) but the selection committee was apparently formed with exiles and the Syrian government had no idea the film was chosen. The director is a Syrian based in the United States and he made part of the documentary remotely since he couldn't get to the filming locations. However, this is a very small film that was made under very basic and very difficult conditions. Its backstory is more engaging than the film. AUSTRALIA selected romantic comedy "The Space Between", a co-production with Italy, but English-speaking Australia is just here to participate and the film hasn't gotten great reviews. Kenya and Tunisia return to the competition after long absences. KENYA chose "Kati Kati", a cute little movie from German director Tom Tykwer's production house, about a woman who wakes up in purgatory with no memory of her previous life. It's an interesting film, but it's quite short (maybe 70 minutes?) and low-budget. TUNISIA has chosen "The Last of Us", an odd little film with no dialogue about an African immigrant trying to get to Europe. It's gotten notices for its cinematography but nothing more. Both are interesting curiosities from Africa, but won't compete here. 


10. IRAN- “Breathe”
11. EGYPT- “Sheikh Jackson”
12 IRAQ- “The Dark Wind”
13. SENEGAL- “Félicité”

These four films are probably all good (I haven't seen any) but they don't have strong enough notices to be nominated. "Félicité" is the first film ever to represent SENEGAL but is set in Congo, premiered at Cannes with its story of about a local singer trying to save the life of her son when he is injured in an accident. It's filled with beautiful music and local flavor, but Variety notes it fails to "build a narrative" story. EGYPT selected "Sheikh Jackson" (Toronto) over the more buzzy "The Preacher", which wasn't necessary a bad decision. "Sheikh Jackson", a comedy-drama about a conservative mullah with a penchant for Michael Jackson music resonated with American viewers enough to get a US distributor, but reviews have been positive but unenthusiastic and Egypt has been ignored for better films ("Destiny", "Yacoubian Building").

Returning champion IRAN has selected "Breathe", the first film ever directed by a woman to represent the Islamic Republic. It's a film about how children dealt with the devastating Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Neighboring IRAQ has selected the controversial "The Dark Wind", about the prejudice faced by Yazidi/Kurdish women who try to reintegrate into society after being sexually abused by ISIS forces. Both are relevant, stirring films about the problems faced by women and girls, but I think both are too small to compete here.

6. MOZAMBIQUE- “Train of Salt and Sugar”
7. PALESTINE- “Wajib”
8. MOROCCO- “Razzia”
9. NEW ZEALAND- “One Thousand Ropes”

These films may have some fans, but will face too much competition. Let's take a look:

MOROCCO- "Razzia"
IN BRIEF: "Crash" set in Morocco, with a number of  intersecting stories on the streets of Casablanca.
PROS: A politically correct message of tolerance in an intolerant society. Ayouch is a respected director who just joined the Academy.
CONS: Reviews have been decidedly mixed. The five stories apparently are of uneven quality, with some saying the film almost "collapses". No awards.
BOTTOM LINE: Not this year.

MOZAMBIQUE- "Train of Salt and Sugar"
IN BRIEF: A diverse cast of characters deal with violence and personal conflicts while aboard a train travelling through rebel-held territory during Mozambique's civil war.
PROS: Surprisingly strong reviews.
CONS: No buzz.
BOTTOM LINE: No nomination, but a surprisingly strong first showing for Mozambique.

NEW ZEALAND- "One Thousand Ropes"
IN BRIEF: A Samoan father in New Zealand tries to make amends with his daughter
PROS: Good, overall reviews
CONS: Nobody is excited about the film. Oscar doesn't like the supernatural.
BOTTOM LINE: No chance.

IN BRIEF: Following local tradition, a father and son hand-deliver invitations to a family wedding, even though they hate each other.
PROS: A comedic drama that is exotic yet relatable. Real-life father and son Mohamed and Saleh Bakri are excellent.
CONS: The film "breaks no new ground". Reviews are positive but unenthusiastic.
BOTTOM LINE: Unlikely unless it can charm the larger committee.

3. ALGERIA- “Road to Istanbul”
4. TURKEY- “Ayla: Daughter of War”
5. SOUTH AFRICA- “The Wound"

One of these dark horses could surprise. "The Wound" from SOUTH AFRICA (Sundance) is supposed to be a truly remarkable film. Set in the country's Xhosa community (famous for their clicking languages), it's caused controversy at home for raising awareness of some sadistic cultural initiation practices, and for setting an LGBT story in their traditional society. The film is likely very deserving, and could be saved.....but I worry this won't do too well with the large committee. I was really rooting for "The Wound" but I was angry with director John Trengrove's attempt to withdraw his film at the very last minute from the (quite progressive!) Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival (reportedly after he had already arrived in the country!) for political reasons.

ALGERIA's Rachid Bouchareb has gotten nominated in this category three times- which is think is more than any other non-European director. "Road to Istanbul" is a topical drama about a Belgian woman whose daughter converts to Islam and travels to Syria to join ISIS. The Belgian wom-an sets off on a journey to find out what has happened to her daughter,. As unrealistic as this may sound, recent news stories have shown that the daughter's story is not so far-fetched. Nobody is talking about "Road to Istanbul", but Bouchareb has surprised before. TURKEY arranged a qualifying release in the hopes of a first-ever Oscar nomination for "Ayla: Daughter of War", which is total Oscar bait. During the Korean War, a Turkish soldier finds and saves a pitifully adorable Korean war orphan. It's a tearjerker, it's got a cute kid in distress, it's got a war.....However, there are so few reviews online that I haven't been able to get a sense of whether it's any good. If this was the 1980s or 1990s it would be nominated. Now, the committee has gotten a little more edgy. I'm not sure if these sentimental films work anymore, but they could make the Top Nine and get cut when they reveal the Top Five. 

1. ISRAEL- “Foxtrot”
2. LEBANON- “The Insult”

I haven't seen either of these films yet, but I've heard from many different sources that they are among the best of the year, in any language. ISRAEL is probably the hands-down favorite to win the Oscar and I'm pretty sure it will be nominated (although missed the Golden Globes will hurt). It won the NBR Best Foreign Film award (France's "BPM" won most regional critics awards) and the Silver Lion in Venice for its family drama about a couple dealing with devastating news about their son. Israel got four nominations in the five years between 2007-2011 (the best film of the five- "Human Resources Manager"- didn't get nominated) and this should bring Israel their first nod in six years. LEBANON won Best Actor in Venice for its courtroom drama about an insult between a Christian and Muslim in Lebanon that goes out of control has gotten equally good reviews (with far less attention). I've predicted Lebanon several times over the years, but they've never been nominated despite some great films. I think this will be their year.  

Now the statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past
: 27

Number of countries participating this year:  17

Number of debuts: THREE: Mozambique, Senegal and- most surprisingly- war-torn Syria, which was submitted by a committee of exiles.

Number of countries opting out: Well, technically sixteen but most of those have only sent a film once or twice. The only notable absences really are ETHIOPIA and JORDAN, which have both sent films two of the past three years. More surprising however were the absences of GHANA and the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES which both announced with great fanfare that they had selection committees approved by AMPAS for the first time, and that they would send their first films to the Oscars. Both countries opted not to enter. Ghana said publicly that they were disappointed with the small number of entries, and that ultimately none of them met all the Oscar requirements. Nigeria had a similar issue a few years ago. The UAE said that their committee could not agree on which film to send, and that they did not “want to send a subpar film” and that they wanted to “set the bar high” for their first Oscar entry. I’m disappointed with the Emiratis, as their expected entry “Only Men Go To The Grave” sounded really intriguing.

Number I predicted correctly: Iraq, Kenya and New Zealand, and I specifically predicted the films from Morocco, Palestine and Turkey would be selected if they were released in time.

Already Seen: Just “Kati Kati”, the entry from KENYA. Although I’ve got plans to see Iraq, Palestine, Senegal and Tunisia before the end of the year.

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Definitely “Wajib” from PALESTINE.  

Feature Debuts: FIVE. Ruth Borgobello (Australia), Mbithi Masya (Kenya), Ala Eddine Slim (Tunisia), John Trengrove (South Africa) and Can Ulkay (Turkey).

Number of Female DirectorsTHREE- Ruth Borgobello (Australia) and Annemarie Jacir (Palestine) are joined by the Narges Abyar, the first woman ever to represent the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: The oldest is Brazilian born Licinio Azevedo, 66, who is representing Mozambique. It’s unclear who the youngest is, though it’s probably Mbithi Masya from Kenya.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Lots of these films are multi-lingual, but five are mostly in Arabic (Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria) plus one each in French, Hebrew, Italian, Kurdish, Lingala, Persian, Portuguese, Samoan, Swahili, Turkish and Xhosa, plus the film from Tunisia which reportedly has virtually no dialogue. Nice to see the Africans making films in indigenous languages like Lingala and Xhosa.

Number of DocumentariesONE, “Little Gandhi” from Syria.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Exactly FIVE. 

Highest profile film:  Definitely Israel’s “Foxtrot”

Oscar History: Algeria’s Rachid Bouchareb is the only director who has been nominated in this category. He has a surprising three Oscar nominations for “Dust of Life” (terrible!), “Days of Glory” and “Outside the Law”.

Many of the other directors have also been here before. Ziad Doueiri represented Lebanon in 1998 with the deserving “West Beirut”, while Nabil Ayouch has represented Morocco three times in 1998, 2000 and 2013 for “Mektoub”, “Ali Zaoua” and “Horses of God” respectively. Annemarie Jacir represented Palestine in 2008 (“Salt of This Sea”) and 2012 (“When I Saw You”).  Tusi Tamasese represented New Zealand in 2011 with “The Orator”. Doueiri, Ayouch and Tamasese of them began their country’s regular participation at the Oscars.

Controversies and Changes: Ziad Doueiri (who made his last film in Israel) and the subject matter of South Africa’s “The Wound” have been controversial….but no controversies or changes in the selections this year. Jordan banned their front-running film "Blessed Benefit", preventing it from getting a domestic release despite being partially funded by the Jordanian government. 

Most Notable Omissions: "The Preacher" from Egypt, "Midday Event" from Iran and "Solitaire" from Lebanon, plus a slew of South African films that now probably feel like idiots for opening in one theatre, including "Vaya", Five Fingers for Marseilles" and "Krotoa". 

Familiar Faces: No internationally famous faces, though Lion Ashkenazi ("Foxtrot") is a big star at home in Israel.

Last year's race:   Last year, these countries had 15 films on the official list. I managed to see six: the two eventual Oscar nominees (“The Salesman” and “Tanna”) plus the films from Lebanon, New Zealand, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. Honestly, my favorite was “Barakah Meets Barakah”, the surprisingly subversive romantic comedy from Saudi Arabia (A) which seems to be silly and playful through most of its running time before you get a dose of reality in the end. I’d rank Australia’s “Tanna” (A-) next, followed by fascinating documentary “Flickering Truth” (B+), Oscar winner “The Salesman” (B), Palestine (B-) and Lebanon (B-). 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Foreign Oscar Predictions- the Submissions from Western Europe (18 films)

I've managed to see half (9 of 18) of the films from Western Europe, so I feel confident when I say that Western Europe won't get as many spots as they usually do. 

16. IRELAND- "Song of Granite"
17. PORTUGAL- "Saint  George"
18. BELGIUM- "Racer and the Jailbird"
19. GREECE- "Amerika Square"
20. LUXEMBOURG- "Barrage"

Almost every year, the films from Greece, Luxembourg and Portugal are at the bottom of this list. Portugal holds the world record for the most submissions without an Oscar nomination, Greece has gotten one nomination in the past forty years (for "Dogtooth", which I still think was some sort of mistake) and tiny Luxembourg only makes two or three movies a year. Their record is unlikely to improve this year. 

For the record, GREECE selected "Amerika Square", an interesting little drama about an economically depressed neighborhood in Greece where migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe now outnumber the Greeks. The local population deals with the issue in different ways...Among a pair of old friends, one embraces the newcomers, the other turns to violence. It's an interesting little movie, but a fairly minor effort. LUXEMBOURG has Isabelle Huppert, which would seem like enough for a nomination....but it isn't. It's a character study of three generations of mother and daughters, as a young mother estranged from the family takes the daughter she never knew on a road trip. It's not a bad movie...It's well-acted and has solid characters, but nothing much happens (though it has some beautiful sequences towards the end). PORTUGAL's "Saint George" focuses on the economic crisis endured by Portugal in the 1990s. It's available on Amazon and won Best Actor at Venice Horizons, but nobody seems very excited about it. 

As for BELGIUM, they really screwed up. After a great film year, they decided to dump all of thse films to choose the unreleased "Racer & The Jailbird" by the same director and star of "Bullhead", which netted the, a surprise nomination six years ago. It's a dark love story set on the mean streets of Belgium and it's gotten fairly negative reviews. So bye bye Belgium. You should have picked "Insyriated" or "The King of the Belgians". Lastly there's IRELAND which has selected B&W docu-drama-cum-musical-biopic "The Song of Granite". I missed the film twice so I haven't seen it, but it's supposed to be lovely if you're interested in the history of Irish folk music.....which seems rather a niche. 

10. NETHERLANDS- "Layla M."
11. SWITZERLAND- "The Divine Order"
12. ICELAND- "Under the Tree"
13. UNITED KINGDOM- "My Pure Land"

These four films have been well-received, but not well enough to be considered by either of the two selection committees. "The Divine Order" from SWITZERLAND is currently in limited release in US cinemas, and it was the first of the 92 Oscar submissions I saw this year. This story of Swiss women fighting for the right too vote in the 1970s ( read that right...the 1970s!) was entertaining and educational with a lot of humor (and a little too much talk about vaginas). But I didn't find it much more than a pleasant diversion. ICELAND picked "Under the Tree", a darkly comic thriller about two neighboring families feuding over a tree. It sounds great, but Oscar doesn't really like black comedies and nobody is talking about the film. 

"My Pure Land", the film representing the UNITED KINGDOM was made in Pakistan by a debutante British director of Pakistani descent. It's been described as "Kill Bill" Pakistani-style, as a rural woman and two female relatives have to fight back against a group of bandits trying to take their home. I was living in Pakistan when it was selected and elite Pakistani women on social media are excited to see it. Unfortunately, it may never be seen in Pakistan and the majority of Pakistanis have never heard of it. Everyone says it's a daring feminist film, but critics also say it is clearly the work of a talented director still learning his craft. Last is "Layla M."from the NETHERLANDS, about an 18-year old Dutch girl of Moroccan descent who is tempted by fundamentalist Islam and radicalism. Director Mijke de Jong set out to make a thoughtful film trying to explain why Dutch Muslim youth turn to violence. However, I confess that many people like me don't care. I don't particularly want to see a movie that ends up forgiving those seek to harm their fellow citizens. I know that wasn't the director's intention, but that's how it will play in the USA. 

6. SWEDEN- "The Square"
7. NORWAY- "Thelma"
8. AUSTRIA- "Happy End"
9. FINLAND- "Tom of Finland"

A lot of people are predicting these three Nordic films (a lot of people think "The Square" will win) plus the Haneke. But I've seen three out of four and I think all of them are going to be disappointed come announcement time. Let's take a look: 

AUSTRIA- "Happy End"
In Brief: A wealthy dysfunctional family deals with extra-marital affairs, suicidal tendencies, and faulty construction.
Pros: Michael Haneke is a beloved director. All-star French cast. The film has some clever dark comedy and twists. 
Cons: It's one of Haneke's weaker efforts and the reviews shows it. The film's focus on social media means much of the film is irritatingly spent reading texts and e-mails. An unlikable family. 
Bottom Line: Not Haneke's best and it won't get in. 

FINLAND- "Tom of Finland"
In Brief: A biopic of Finland's most famous erotic, gay artist Touko Laaksonen. 
Pros: Oscar sometimes goes for biopics. The film shows the USA in a positive light. It's a rather tame look at a racy subject so it won't make the old people voting too uncomfortable. Topical subject of gay rights. 
Cons: It's still a biopic of a man famous for his depictions of leather daddies and gay sex. 
Bottom Line: The LGBT community may be represented by Chile and France, but not by Finland.

NORWAY- "Thelma"
In Brief: A lesbian college student starts shaking and either has epilepsy or frightening telekinetic powers.
Pros: It's an original film that deftly blends mystery, arthouse, sci-fi and fantasy. There are some beautiful and frightening moments. 
Cons: None of these are genres that appeal to Oscar. The film is definitely female-centric and the mystery is a little too easy to figure out. 
Bottom Line: Unlikely to advance. 

SWEDEN- "The Square:
In Brief: A modern art museum gets ready for a pretentious exhibition. 
Pros: CANNES PALME D'OR. Even those who don't like the film will want it saved to save AMPAS the embarrassment of not nominating the favorite. Lots of English will save room on subtitles. Director Ruben Ostlund was Oscar shortlisted for "Force Majeure" and likely came in sixth place. Earned a Golden Globe nomination this morning. 
Cons: It's not a very good movie. The characters are irritating and this kind of Roy Andersson-esque, theatre of the absurd has never played well with AMPAS. 
Bottom Line: I'm fairly certain this will be the surprise snub on shortlist morning....but it's possible the Large Committee could save it. 

3. ITALY- "A Ciambra"
4. DENMARK- "You Disappear"
5. SPAIN- "Summer 1993"

All of these films from traditional Oscar superpowers are in with a chance.....but mixed reviews will probably prevent that from happening. "You Disappear" from Denmark is a great film that has gotten mostly bad reviews. "Summer 1993", a terribly boring film from Spain has gotten mostly good reviews. Which means that "A Ciambra", the street kid drama from Italy and backed by Martin Scorsese is the most likely to make the cut....which is still a bit of a long shot

If you're interested in a thought-provoking, twisty courtroom drama, look no further than "You Disappear", from DENMARK about a principal who stands accused of embezzling huge amounts of money from his school and blames the crime on a brain tumor that has changed his behavior.  Most of the movie is seen from the point of view of his wife. It's smart (one might say intellectual....) and talky (one might say too much....) and tells much of its story through flashbacks that reveal the story little by little, with a twist ending. Oscar loves Denmark. They're nominated almost every year because they understand what this committee likes....Reviews haven't been great, but maybe Denmark knows something we don't. If you're interested in watching two small children play in a backyard for an hour and 45 minutes, by all means go see "Summer 1993" from mean SPAIN. An orphaned young girl is sent to live with her 20-something aunt and uncle and their young daughter in the Catalonian countryside. It's very realistic, with great child actors and a very serious message. It's also overlong and terribly boring. I can't see it succeeding here. ITALY chose "A Ciambra", a sequel to "Mediterranea", about a street-smart Gypsy kid coming-of-age in a community of Italians, Roma Gypsies and African refugees. Reviews have been pretty good. We'll see if it's good enough to make the shortlist. Scorsese is campaigning......

1. GERMANY- "In the Fade"
2. FRANCE- "180 battements par minute"

On Sunday, France was a favorite and Germany was on the bubble. After the Golden Globe nominations honored "In the Fade" and snubbed the more critically acclaimed "BPM", the positions were reversed, with France now fighting to make the finals.

FRANCE has better reviews, a healthy US box office result and has won Best Foreign Film among the NYC, LA, DC and San Francisco Critics associations. So, I think this heavy AIDS drama set during the 1980s when the disease was a death sentence, will get France on the list. But the LGBT subject matter and gay sex may turn off some voters. I haven't seen it yet as it screened while I was working overseas. GERMANY won Best Actress at Cannes for actress Diane Kruger though reviews for the film have been decidedly mixed. I can't understand why, because I thought "In the Fade" was amazing. It's exciting, intelligent, topical and a perfect mix of arthouse and Hollywood, courtroom drama and action movie. Along with Bulgaria, it's the best of the 26 films I've seen. For the record, it's a thriller about a woman whose ex-con German-Kurdish husband is killed in what appears to be a terrorist attack.....and what an ending! If Oscar shortlisted terrible German Oscar submissions like "Pina" and "Labyrinth of Lies" and nominated mediocre ones like "Baader Meinhof" and "Sophie Scholl", it would be a disgrace not to nominate "In the Fade". 

Now the statistics:

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

Number of countries participating this year:  18

Number of debuts: None.

Number of countries opting out: Only tiny Greenland (pop: 55,000) and Malta (pop: 440,000), which don’t always have something eligible.

Number I predicted correctly: 6. FRANCE, IRELAND, LUXEMBOURG, SWEDEN, SWITZERLAND and the UK. I would have also gotten AUSTRIA had I known Haneke was arranging a qualifying release. 

Already Seen: NINE. I’ve seen the films from Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, and plan to see the ones from Finland and Portugal this month. 

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Definitely Iceland’s “War of the Roses”-style thriller “Under the Tree”

Feature Debuts:   Only TWO. Carla Simon of Spain, and Sarmad "Sam" Masud of the UK.

Number of Female DirectorsFOUR. Mijke de Jong (Netherlands), Laura Schroeder (Luxembourg), Carla Simon (Spain) and Petra Biondina Volpe (Switzerland).

Oldest and Youngest Directors: The senior director is (unsurprisingly) 76-year old Michael Haneke (Austria). The youngest is 31-year old Carla Simon of Spain.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Four films are mostly in French (Austria, Belgium, France and Luxembourg), two are in dialects of German (Germany and Switzerland), with the other twelve in Catalan, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish and Urdu.

Number of Documentaries:  None.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: About five.

Highest profile film:  As usual, Western Europe has a lot of high-profile entries….Austria has big names, France has a message, Britain has a backstory and Norway has buzz. However, Sweden has a Palme d’Or, so I’d argue that “The Square” is the highest-profile film on the list.

Oscar History: The big name is Michael Haneke, who was selected to represent Austria for the sixth time, and has also represented Germany once. He has one Oscar win in this category (for “Amour”), one nomination (for “The White Ribbon”), plus Directing and Writing nominations in his own name for “Amour”. Michael R. Roskam (Belgium) was also nominated once before for “Bullhead”.

Also in the race before: Fatih Akin (“Edge of Heaven” in 2007), Mijke de Jong (“Bluebird”, which was ultimately disqualified in 2005), Peter Schønau Fog (“The Art of Crying” in 2007), Dome Karukowski (“House of Dark Butterflies” in 2008), Marco Martins (“Alice” in 2006), Ruben Östlund (“Involuntary” in 2009 and “Force Majeure” in 2014) and Joachim Trier (“Reprise” in 2006).

Nine of these countries have won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while six more have been nominated. Ireland was short-listed once (for “Viva”), leaving only Luxembourg and Portugal as the unluckiest countries on the list.

And of of course, the producer of "A Ciambra"- Martin Scorsese- has an Oscar for directing "The Departed", plus eleven more nods for directing, writing and producing. 

Controversies and Changes: No real controversies, although I personally find it unfortunate that this year so many countries felt the need to “cheat” on their release dates by arranging a qualifying release. This year, Austria, Belgium and Germany did that.

Most Notable Omissions:     I think the most notable omissions were "Heartsone" from Iceland, and "Insyriated”, an Arabic-language drama that would have done a much better job representing Belgium that the poorly reviewed “Racer and the Jailbird”. Also absent: "Western" (Germany), "Sami Blood" (Sweden) and a slew of films by previous Oscar winners like "Redoubtable" (France), Tulipani, Love, Honour and a Bicycle (Netherlands) and Die Holle (Austria).. 

Familiar Faces:  Well, obviously the big star is Isabelle Huppert, who co-stars in both the Austrian and Luxembourgian submissions this year. That's after starring in the French submission last year, and as well (over the years) other submissions from France, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal. And she's great in both of them, as she always is. 

But we also have Jean-Louis Trintignant ("Amour") and Mathieu Kassovitz ("Amelie) in "Happy End", Matthias Schoenaerts ("Rust and Bone") in "Racer & the Jailbird", Diane Kruger (Cannes Best Actress winner + the "National Treasure" series) and Elisabeth Moss ("The Handmaid's Tale") in "The Square". 

Last year's race:    I saw seven of the Western European nominees last year, including five that got nominated for Oscars- “Land of Mine” and “A Man Called Ove” (Best Foreign Film), “Fire at Sea” (Documentary), “My Life as a Zucchini” (Animated Film) and “Elle” (Best Actress). I thought four of them were very good….My favorite was slow-burn horror film “Under the Shadow” (UK), although it starts off very slow, followed by “A Man Called Ove”, “Land of Mine” and “Elle”. I thought “Chevalier” (C+) was okay, but “My Life as a Zucchini” (C-) and “Fire At Sea” (D-) were incredibly overrated. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Foreign Oscar Predictions- the Submissions from Eastern Europe (20 films)

16. KOSOVO- "Unwanted"
17. AZERBAIJAN- "Pomegranate Orchard"
18. CROATIA- "Quit Staring At My Plate"
19. LITHUANIA- "Frost"
20. UKRAINE- "Black Level"

There's just no room to even consider these five films hailing from republics that emerged from Yugoslavia and the former USSR. For Lithuania and Ukraine, the reviews have been downright harsh. UKRAINE's experimental film "Black Level", about a wedding photographer in a small town, was largely improvised and is said to be a difficult watch. LITHUANIA may have gotten a slot at Cannes Director's Fortnight for "Frost", a grim, talky road movie through war-torn Eastern Ukraine, but nobody seems to like it and I was surprised Lithuania even sent it. I've seen the film from CROATIA- "Quit Staring At My Plate"- which isn't bad at all, but has no chance here. It's about a young nurse living with her dysfunctional white-trash family, who seeks to reclaim her independence when her father is incapacitated by a stroke. Oscar doesn't like misanthropic characters or stories about women. It also has the competition's most disturbing poster. Then there are the two obscure entries from this year's East of the West section at Karlovy Vary- "The Pomegranate Orchard" from AZERBAIJAN and "Unwanted" from KOSOVO. Both films were well-received, but more as representatives of new talent from new countries, rather than potential Oscar nominees. My Azerbaijani friends said they hadn't even heard of "Orchard" a story based on Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" about a man living peacefully with his daughter-in-law, when her estranged husband returns to take his family to Moscow. Kosovo's film- a coming-of-ager about a Dutch-Kosovar boy living with refugee mum in the Netherlands- is too small to compete here. 

11. SERBIA- "Requiem for Mrs. J"
12. ROMANIA- "Fixeur"
13. SLOVAKIA- "The Line"
14. ALBANIA- "Daybreak"
15. ARMENIA- "Yeva"

Chances aren't much better for this group of obscure group of films. All have positive notices but none have the gravitas to make it to the next round. SLOVAKIA selected crime thriller "The Line" about smugglers on the border between Slovakia (an EU member) and Ukraine (a no man's land) in the 1990s. It's supposed to be quite exciting, but probably the wrong genre to get a nomination here. ROMANIA selected "Fixeur", a moral dilemma drama about the power of the media and individual privacy, featuring a group of Romanian paparazzi chasing down the story of an underaged prostitute who has just been deported back to Romania. Romanian New Wave films have only been shortlisted once and "Fixeur" isn't the strongest entry.  I visited ARMENIA this year when "Yeva" was in the theatres, but I didn't meet a single person who had seen it. I haven't seen a single overseas review of it anywhere either. For the record, it's about an Iranian-Armenian woman fleeing an abusive marriage by starting a new life in Nagorno-Karabakh. SERBIA's "Requiem for Mrs. J" has gotten great reviews for its jet-black comedy about a suicidal widow seeking to join her husband, but it's so subtle that it will surely get forgotten. Finally, we have "Daybreak", the grim entry from ALBANIA. In a twist on "Amour", a desperate, newly homeless single mother is offered a new job as caretaker for a dying woman, meaning she has a job and a roof over her head, but only as long as the woman stays alive. It's a compelling story, but the film is so dark and depressing with so many disturbing images as things get worse and worse for Lita, that I don't see it scoring here. 

6. ESTONIA- "November"
7. POLAND- "Spoor"
9. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Ice Mother"
10. SLOVENIA- "The Miner"
All five of these films have their pluses and minuses. Let's take a look:

BOSNIA- "Men Don't Cry"
In Brief: A group of Bosniak, Serbian and Croatian war veterans are brought together 20 years after the civil war for a sort of group therapy session.
Pros: Lots of regional awards (Karlovy Vary, Zagreb, Bratislava), showing the film really resonates at home. It's a subject filled with dramatic tension and Oscar likes male-dominated dramatic stories.
Cons: It's a talky drama about local issues, and other than Bosnia's one win ("No Man's Land"), films about the Yugoslav wars haven't resonated with Oscar.
Bottom Line: Will score well, but too much competition for a spot on the shortlist.

In Brief: A selfless widow with two selfish, adult sons and a dysfunctional grandson finds love (and sex) with a senior citizen ice swimmer.
Pros: It's a charming film...definitely Bohdan Slama's best so far. Zuzana Kronerová gives a wonderful, brave performance. Best Screenplay at Tribeca shows it resonates with US audiences.
Cons: It's a small intimate film....This wonderful unfolds slowly but has a jarring ending that is rather abrupt and sudden. Oscar likes old men, not old women.
Bottom Line: Will score well, but no nom.

ESTONIA- "November"
In Brief: A B&W gothic fairy tale set in the woods of medieval Estonia, featuring witches, ghosts, werewolves, a plague and an enchanted princess.
Pros: It's dazzlingly original, fun to watch and....well....rather bizarre. Dialogue like "Latvians have an ass for a mouth and only shit comes out of it". The opening scene with the kratt and the cow....Wow. A beautiful sad finish.
Cons: It's....well....rather bizarre. Lots of viewers will just be "WTF".....Dialogue like "I can even make your pants dance".
Bottom Line: It's a goner...unless the Elite Committee has a "Dogtooth moment".

POLAND- "Spoor"
In Brief: An Agatha Christie murder mystery if Miss Marple were a hysterical English teacher who loves animals.
Pros: Agnieszka Holland is a visually talented filmmaker. The film is very entertaining and the mystery is mildly engaging. Ends on a high note.
Cons: Critic reviews were actually very mixed. If Holland wasn't the director, I don't think it would have been selected.
Bottom Line: I don't think Holland has enough pull to get it to the shortlist, but the film definitely has some passionate fans.

SLOVENIA- "The Miner:
In Brief: Based on a true story, a Bosnian laborer in Slovenia finds a mass grave from the war, and is told to keep it quiet.
Pros: A strong plotline with a compelling moral dilemma.
Cons: No buzz, no awards.
Bottom Line: A good movie that may be quickly forgotten.

3. GEORGIA- "Scary Mother"
4. HUNGARY- "On Body and Soul"
5. LATVIA- "Chronicles of Melanie"

These three films are confusing...."Chronicles of Melanie" is total Oscar bait- a stark B&W film set during WWII, about a Latvian wife and mother who is separated from her family and placed in a Siberian detention camp- but hasn't really been noticed since it premiered nearly a year ago. Hoping to emulate "Paradise" (another grim WWII film set in the former Soviet Union), tiny LATVIA will struggle to get noticed, but the subject matter is heavy.

GEORGIA has made it to the next round twice, and they had a great film year, with late release "Scary Mother" beating out a number of likely candidates to represent the country. Everyone who sees this family drama- about a middle-aged wife and mother who throws her entire life and being into her writing, at the expense of her marriage and family- says it's amazing, and it's winning awards wherever it is shown, including Locarno, Mumbai, Sarajevo and the Asia-Pacific Screen Awards.

HUNGARY's "On Body and Soul" won the Golden Bear, so getting noticed is not the problem....I just don't see that this quirky romance set in a slaughterhouse is likely to appeal to American Oscar voters. They've never nominated anything like it. It's entirely possibly that the Elite Committee could save it based on their Berlin win, but I think they'll reserve it for something more universally loved. I really think "Body and Soul" is a long shot at best, failing entirely with the Large Committee and getting discussed (but ultimately cut) by the Elite Committee. UPDATED: I saw "On Body and Soul" yesterday.....Filled with disturbing imagery, it's true the Large Committee won't like it (I didn't really like it either....) BUT, I now have a strong feeling that this will be one of the three "saves". It's now on my prediction list.

Of these three, I think Georgia has the best chance of snagging a surprise spot. 

1. RUSSIA- "Loveless"
2. BULGARIA- "Glory"

Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize and the Grand Prize in London, "Loveless" from RUSSIA has been one of the clear favorites since the Russian committee selected it.  Like Zvyagintsev's previous films, this one has gotten great reviews from American and international critics. His latest film is about a separated husband and wife in a "loveless" marriage, who have to come together when their young son goes missing. If it gets a Golden Globe nomination tomorrow morning, it's probably in. 

BULGARIA has quietly been earning a strong reputation for media satire "Glory", which has appeared in two dozen festivals all around the world, racking up a steady stream of awards. It's one of the best of the 26 submissions I have seen so far. because it's so clever and disturbing and thought-provoking.....It really stays with you. In the film, a simple railroad worker finds a large cache of money on the train tracks and returns it to the authorities. His good deed sets into a motion an unexpected series of events, involving him, a self-centered PR woman and his "Glory" watch, an heirloom from his father. It's a dark horse for a nomination and will probably just miss out. 

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. Every Eastern European country has submitted at least once, so no more debuts are possible. 

Number of countries opting out: FOUR. Macedonia, Moldova and Montenegro all announced the formation of selection committees. MACEDONIA announced they had received two eligible submissions- “"When the Day Had No Name" (Berlin) and "Golden Five"- but declined to send either one. Macedonia did the same thing in 2013, inexplicably missing a chance to give free publicity to Macedonian cinema. A really stupid decision. MONTENEGRO announced that no local films had asked to be sent, while there was no news from MOLDOVA. Grumpy BELARUS hasn’t sent a film since 1996 and is no longer on the invite list.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: This was the region where I did the best. I got 9 out of 20 right- Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Kosovo, Latvia, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, and I also had the submissions from Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine in second place. 

Already Seen: SEVEN. I’ve seen the films from ALBANIA, BULGARIA, CROATIA, CZECH REPUBLIC, ESTONIA, HUNGARY and POLAND. I plan to see the films from Bosnia, Georgia, Kosovo, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia within the next few weeks.

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
: Probably “Yeva” the Iranian co-production representing ARMENIA. I tried to see it when I was in Yerevan for work, but they only had screenings with Persian subtitles.

Feature Debuts: SIX. Anahit Abad (Armenia), Alen Drljevic (Bosnia), Hana Jusic (Croatia), Gentian Koçi (Albania), Edon Rizvanolli (Kosovo) and Ana Urushadze (Georgia) 

Number of Female Directors:  Eight women from seven countries. In addition to Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik who co-directed “Spoor” (Poland), we have Anahit Abad (Armenia), ldikó Enyedi (Hungary), Kristina Grozeva (Bulgaria), Hana Jušić (Croatia), Hanna Slak (Slovenia) and Ana Urushadze (Georgia).

Oldest and Youngest Directors: Agnieszka Holland, 69, of Poland and Ana Urushadze, 27, of Georgia.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  Three films are in Serbo-Croatian (Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia) while the others are in Albanian, Armenian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Czech, Dutch (Kosovo), Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovene and Ukrainian. The Lithuanian film seems to be in a mish-mash of Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and English….Not sure which language (if any) is the majority.

Number of Documentaries: None. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many. Maybe five. 

Highest profile film:  Definitely “Loveless” from Russia.

Oscar History: Agnieszka Holland has three Oscar nominations to her name- one for Best Screenplay in 1992 for "Europa Europa" and two for Foreign Film in 1986 for "Bitter Harvest" and in 2012 for "In Darkness". Andrey Zvyagintsev got an Oscar nod for "Leviathan", and was also submitted for "The Return".

Bohdan Slama (Czech Republic) is in the race for the third time after being selected in 2002 for "Wild Bees" and 2005 for "Something Like Happiness". Ilgar Najaf ("Buta", 2012) is competing for Azerbaijan for the second time. 

The Bosnians, Czechs, Hungarians, Poles and Russians have won the Oscar before, while Estonia, Georgia and Serbia have been nominated. 

Controversies and Changes: Russia avoided all controversies by choosing "Loveless". 

Most Notable Omissions:  I think "My Happy Family" from Georgia was the most surprising film cut in the preliminaries.  Also cut: "Distant Angels" (Albania), "Godless" (Bulgaria), "The Constitution" (Croatia), Jan Sverak's "Barefoot" (Czech Republic), "1945" (Hungary) and "Mathilda" (Russia)

Familiar Faces:  Just Vanessa Paradis, who co-stars as an aid worker in the Lithuanian submission. 

Last year's race:   Last year, of the 21 Eastern European films submitted, I managed to see the films from Slovakia (A), Estonia (B+), Montenegro (B), Czech Republic (B) and Ukraine (C-). In my opinion, Slovakia’s “Eva Nova” deserved to win the Oscar.