Oscarwatch special edition: Spotlight on Foreign Film

In anticipation of tomorrows announcement of the 9 films that will be advancing in the foreign film race, here’s a complete coverage of the 71 movies from all over the world that entered the race this year (a record number) – even though most of these will no longer have the Oscar association to raise their profiles by tomorrow, there are a bunch of interesting pieces in the bunch, that honestly deserve a showcase a lot more than some of the stuff that ends up in Best Picture. So, warning – loooong post ahead.

Western Europe – 17 films

17. GREECE- “Unfair World”
16. PORTUGAL- “Blood of My Blood”
15. TURKEY- “Where the Fire Burns”
14. NORWAY- “Kon-Tiki”
13. GREENLAND- “Inuk”

GREECE has selected a black comedy about an aging police detective going through a series of moral dilemmas involving murder, innocence and romantic love for a young, mysterious neighbor. I’ve seen “Unfair World” and it’s an interesting yet forgettable film that goes on a bit too long, and peters out in the second half. Despite winning the Best Picture award at the Greek Oscars, it’s a 6/10 at best.

PORTUGAL chose box-office hit “Blood of my Blood” over the more favored, arty “Tabu”. It’s a sprawling family soap opera set in the slums of Lisbon and I liked it quite a lot. Unfortunately, the projector broke during its DC screening after one hour and I’m dying to find out what happened! In any case, it is what it is….a big soap opera and I can’t see it advancing any further.

TURKEY’s “Where the Fire Burns” is a drama about so-called “honor killings”, based on the 2003 murder of a pregnant, unmarried woman by her remorseless father. Though it won the Grand Prize in Montreal, I’ve heard from Turks that it didn’t deserve to represent Turkey (who had a fairly strong year), and while the film is said to highlight a fascinating and topical issue, both the Hollywood Reporter and Variety note sadly that it does so very, very slowly.

GREENLAND and NORWAY (along with ICELAND) are both channeling their Viking pasts with films about men making great journeys. In Norway’s big-budget “Kon-Tiki”, it is the journey of acclaimed explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew, making their way across the Pacific Ocean in 1947 in a small, traditional raft. The story was already made into a film in 1951 (by Heyerdahl himself) which ironically won an Oscar for Best Documentary. Technically solid, the film- reportedly the most expensive in Norwegian history- is praised as a rollicking adventure with solid tech credits but a bit formulaic and lacking in character development. Huge but underpopulated GREENLAND (population: 57,000) is the smallest country to compete in this category (stealing this honor from neighboring Iceland in 2010) and their film “Inuk” has gotten the most solid reviews among these five. Everyone says it’s a really interesting film about a Greenlandic teenager from a dysfunctional family making a journey from the capital city (pop: 15.000) to a foster family in the far North. It’s a coming-of-age film and a journey into Greenland’s resurgent indigenous culture, but most of the praise comments on the cultural aspects and the beauty of the landscape. The audience will sit back and enjoy it but not rate it highly enough to compete with the big boys.


12. NETHERLANDS- “Kauwboy”
11. ICELAND- “The Deep”
10. ITALY- "Caesar Must Die"
9. SWEDEN- “The Hypnotist”

All four of these films face an uphill battle to the shortlist due to one or more problems. The NETHERLANDS’ “Kauwboy” is about a 10-year boy who lives with his single father, and his efforts to care for a small bird. It’s gotten very strong reviews for managing to stay on the right side of sentimental but it’s first and foremost a children’s film. The Dutch probably do these better than everyone, but they’re not likely to be honored here. (Has a children’s movie ever been nominated in this category? I don’t think so).

SWEDEN’s “The Hypnotist” has it all on paper...It’s a mainstream thriller by an Oscar-nominated director and starring an Oscar-nominated actress. The film, Lasse Halstrom’s first Swedish film in 25 years, concerns a detective trying to solve the murder of an entire family by hypnotizing the only surviving witness. It sounds like it could be another “Secret in Their Eyes”. The only problem? Well, it’s not supposed to be very good. Reviews by critics have been the weakest of the Western European films (and also the lowest rating on IMDB- a 5.7) and that should be enough to send the Swedes packing. Neighboring ICELAND’s “The Deep” is said to be a better film, but it’s a difficult one to watch. Based on the true story of the sole survivor of a shipwreck in frigid Icelandic waters, much of the movie is spent watching a man battle alone against the elements.

As for ITALY’s “Caesar Must Die”, this 75-minute winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin is just too oddball to make the cut. As you probably know, it’s a filmed version of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (in several Italian dialects) made starring real inmates at a maximum-security Italian prison. Not everyone likes the movie and winning Berlinale is not a guarantee of making the shortlist (Turkey’s boring “Honey” didn’t make it two years ago). I think it’s much too weird to advance but I’m placing it above films like “Kauwboy” and “Kon-Tiki” on the off chance that the Elite Committee saves it. But I doubt it.


8. FINLAND- “Purge”
7. GERMANY- “Barbara”
6. BELGIUM- “Our Children”
5. SWITZERLAND- “Sister”
Here we have a quartet of grim dramas about Communism, infanticide and family dysfunction. I don’t think any of them will make the Final Nine, but it’s possible one of them may slip through if either of the two Committees really likes them.

The strongest buzz is coming from “L’Enfant en Haut” (aka “Sister”) from SWITZERLAND. Having seen the movie, I’m a bit surprised by this- I thought it was well-made but was somewhat turned off by the unlikable lead characters- but it’s definitely in with a chance. In the film, a 12-year old boy lives with his pretty but aimless and irresponsible older sister near a ski resort in Switzerland. The sister disappears for days at a time with a random series of men. The boy steals everything from food to skis and wallets to support them.

Also from the French-speaking world is BELGIUM’s “A perdre la raison” (aka “Our Children”), based on a real-life series of brutal murders committed by a young mother (Genevieve Lhermitte) against her five young children (reduced to four in the film). I thought the film was a tad too sympathetic to the obviously troubled young mother, but the director does a good job at presenting a story which (in the director’s words) is a different film for everyone who sees it.

FINLAND has chosen “Purge”, based on a bestselling novel. It’s a female-driven film set in neighboring Estonia (but was filmed in the Finnish language) contrasting the lives of two women thrown together by fate. The young woman has just escaped an instance of human trafficking while the older woman was brutalized during the Communist era by Soviets. The film is said to be violent and difficult to watch, but with brilliant acting performances. Though Oscar likes WWII, this may be a bit much for them to take.

This brings us to GERMANY. In the past ten years, the Germans have racked up two wins, four nominations (that lost) plus one additional shortlist spot. The three German films that did not advance included the two best ones the Germans sent (“Goodbye Lenin!” and “Edge of Heaven”). Statistically, that means that this year’s nominee- the cold, forgettable Cold War drama of “Barbara”- should do great. Many people are hailing the film as one of the favorites (it got a Best Pic nomination at the European Film Awards?!) but I found it to be so “average” in every way that I simply can’t believe it will advance. I forgot most of this story of an East German female doctor exiled to small town within hours of seeing the film in Paris (where it was a box-office success).


4. FRANCE- “Les Intouchables”
3. SPAIN- “Blancanieves”
2. DENMARK- “A Royal Affair”

A costume drama, a silent fairy tale and a box-office hit comedy from three of the European powers all stand a decent shot at making this year's shortlist.

FRANCE's "Les Intouchables" was a major box-office hit in the USA by foreign-language standards (it made 10 million Stateside). It's a broadly played comedy about the friendship between a wealthy quadriplegic and his African caretaker. While not a typical Oscar contender, it has won over audiences worldwide. It's a funny and charming film. However, ever since the film beat the most artistic "Rust & Bone" to represent France at the Oscars, there has been an unfortunate backlash against the film which is a shame, because it really is a goof movie. Not every movie at the Oscars has to be about children dying, marital angst or the horrors of World War II! Well-done comedies should have a shot. When all is said and done, "Les Intouchables" is a bit light for the Oscars. It will have to fight hard for that sixth-place slot in the Large Committee because the small one ain't choosing it.

DENMARK's 18th century costume drama "A Royal Affair" has gotten universally positive reviews for it's story of a young queen married to an insane king who falls into the arms of another man. Critics laud it as both a beautiful film and for its exciting screenplay detailing a true story of palace intrigue in a decidedly unstuffy way. It is also said to be a Dark Horse contender for some tech awards like Costume Design. I'm planning on seeing it this week. It's nearly a lock.

I don't think SPAIN's silent, B&W film adaptation of the fairy tale Snow White ("Blancanieves") will impress the large committee. I think the film, set in the 1920s amidst bullfighting, will be too weird for them and it won't appeal to this older, mainstream group. However, I feel pretty strongly that "Blancanieves" stands a strong chance at getting one of the three Elite spots in the way "Kelin" did a few years ago. (They never publicly announce which three films were "saved" by the elite committee, but it's sometimes easy to figure out). Nostalgia for silent films and the recent popularity of "The Artist" will help, not hurt.

You can read about the author’s choice as a lock, Amour, at the SOURCE


Eastern Europe – 20 films


20. ESTONIA- "Mushrooming"
19. ARMENIA- "If Only Everyone"
18. LATVIA- "Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg"
17. LITHUANIA- "Ramin"
16. UKRAINE- "Firecrosser"

LITHUANIA has chosen (for the second time) a documentary short. Oscar rules state that a film must be more than 40 minutes long. Clocking in at a spare 58 minutes, "Ramin" tells the story of 75-year old Ramin Lomsadze, a former Soviet champion wrestler who searches for his long-lost love in rural Georgia. It's all said to be very uplifting but this low-key documentary won't be able to keep its head above water in a field of 71 films, especially considering its spare length and a natural prejudice of some voters that documentaries don't really belong in this category.

Telling three separate stories based on Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam, LATVIA's "Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg" is a Russian-language costume drama set in the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries. Each version has a different incarnation of Lilith as seductress in the Latvia of a different century. It sounds fascinating and it looks gorgeous. Its problem is that the narrative is said to make very little sense. Although IMDB ratings have absolutely nothing to do with Oscar predictions, it's interesting to note that "Iceberg" has the lowest rating of all 71 films (5.5)

The final Baltic republic is the least likely of all- I saw ESTONIA's black comedy "Mushrooming" in November, whose story concerns a corrupt politician and his wife going hunting for mushrooms with an obnoxious local rock star. The film is advertised as a dark black comedy filled with murder and mayhem, but without giving much away, this is quite misleading. Not much happens, and by the end you feel like you've spent 90 minutes watching a bickering married couple get lost in the woods (in fact, you have). And somewhat surprisingly, the end message almost seems like it's justifying corruption.

UKRAINE's "Firecrosser" which is an interesting film based on the life of Ivan Datsenko, a Ukrainian Soviet war hero who went from national hero to Soviet gulag prisoner to Canadian Indian chief (yes, really....) It's an interesting film about a man whose fascinating life is unknown in the West but this first Ukrainian blockbuster is a bit uneven. Most damaging for its Oscar chances, the third act- set in Canada and with the Ukrainian cast speaking or dubbed mostly in English- is a bit painful to watch. Can be seen on http://cinecliq.com/ in case you want to check it out. It's worth a watch, if only to see a film from this beautiful (yet cinematically unknown) country.

Lastly, we have possibly the most obscure film in the Foreign Film race- ARMENIA's patriotic "If Only Everyone"- a government effort which concerns a mixed Armenian-Russian woman who seeks to locate the grave of her father who died in Armenia's war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s. She discovers that the grave lies across the border in enemy Azerbaijan and enlists the help of an Armenian army commander to secretly cross the border and lay flowers at the grave. It won Best Armenian Feature at the Golden Apricot Film Festival but the film has zero buzz and the politics are probably going to be too obscure for the Academy. The Azerbaijanis have protested that the Armenians plagiarized a story by an Azerbaijani writer.


15. SLOVAKIA- "Made in Ash"
14. BULGARIA- "Sneakers"
13. SLOVENIA- "A Trip"
12. RUSSIA- "White Tiger"
11. GEORGIA- "Keep Smiling"

These five films (including two of the three remaining Soviet republics in Europe) are pretty much on the same level as those ranked 16 thru 20. None of them have the buzz or the critical acclaim necessary to advance to the next round.

Four of the films are about the lives of disillusioned 20-somethings in the post-Communist era. BULGARIA's "Sneakers" was a box-office hit in Bulgaria in 2011, but this story of six aimless, borderline-violent slackers (5 guys, 1 girl) escaping their problems on a trip to the seaside was described by the Hollywood Reporter as "the most irritating bunch of whining screen narcissists", despite a somewhat positive review. This angst-ridden youth drama set to a soundtrack of Bulgarian rock music is unlikely to appeal to the older-skewing Oscar committee.

SLOVENIA has also sent a road movie, this time a drama centering on three old high-school friends (straight guy, gay guy, straight girl) reuniting for a road trip through the Slovenian countryside (I did this in May! It's a great idea!). One of the guys is about to be deployed to Afghanistan, and the three have clearly grown apart since their carefree days at school. It's a low-budget film with lots of talking and though it's gotten good reviews, it's too low-key to advance here.

Also made on a low budget, SLOVAKIA's "Made in Ash" is a road movie of a completely different nature...It's a gritty drama about a young Roma woman in Slovakia seeking work and a better life across the border in Germany. As inevitably happens to young women in these sorts of movies, she ends up lured and trafficked into stripping and prostitution. Noticed have been positive but not enthusiastic, and the low budget won't help.

In a somewhat lighter vein is GEORGIA's dark comedy "Keep Smiling", skewing reality TV and beauty pageants. In the film, ten women- most in dire financial straits- compete in a televised beauty pageant (Georgia Mother 2010) to win an apartment and a desperately needed cash prize. The Hollywood Reporter describes it as "Honey Boo Boo" made by the people behind "Desperate Housewives". "Keep Smiling" looks like fun but I've heard it's a flawed film. It'll need a huge amount of support to get that coveted "out-of-nowhere" slot on the shortlist (like comedy "Everybody Famous" in 2001). That's doubtful.

Lastly, we have RUSSIA's strange fantasy "White Tiger". During World War II, an injured Russian soldier is nearly killed in battle. He miraculously heals from his wounds within days but suffers from amnesia and claims an ability to communicate with machines, particularly the tanks on the battlefield. Just like the story of Moby Dick, the soldier becomes obsessed with defeating one particular German tank. Filmed in the old-school Soviet-style, the film is said to be "very Russian", meaning abstract and philosophical. The one other film I've seen by director Karen Shakhnazarov leads me to believe his films are an acquired taste. Despite some positive notices, the film has won no awards. My friend that saw it fell asleep. Maybe next year for Russia.


10. ALBANIA- "Pharmakon"
9. BOSNIA- "Children of Sarajevo"
8. CROATIA- "Cannibal Vegetarian"
6. HUNGARY- "Just the Wind"

In a weak Eastern European field, these five films are likely to finish in the Top Half, but probably won't threaten for the shortlist.

ALBANIA's "Pharmakon" was the only Albanian film eligible, which made choosing the national submission rather easy. I can't find a single review online, but this film about a love triangle between a cruel, domineering father, his son who has recently returned from abroad, and a nurse working in the father's clinic looks very interesting. Despite its small film industry, Albania has sent good films in the past (particularly "Alive", but also "East West East" and "Slogans") which gives me confidence that it's a decent movie, although likely not an Oscar contender.

AZERBAIJAN has returned to the competition with "Buta", a culturally rich film (I saw the trailer...there also appear to be no reviews online) about a little boy living in a remote village with his grandma, and his friendship with an old man. Turns out this old man used to court his grandmother in their youth, decades before. "Buta" is both the little boy's name and a style of carpet made in the village. Oscar loves stories about old people and children ("Kolya", "Central Station", "The Thief") or just children ("Children of Heaven", "Vitus", "The Day My Parents Went On Vacation") but I've heard this is more of a children's film than one for adults, and it has zero buzz...Azerbaijan is traditionally not a contender in this category.

Moving on to BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, we have "Children of Sarajevo", the story of a brother and sister fifteen years after they were orphaned in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The siblings are now 21 and 14, and the older sister, now sporting an Islamic headscarf, is struggling to support the family and keep her younger brother from juvenile deliquency in 2012 Sarajevo. The film is said to be a good one and it won an award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, but I think it's too low-key and quiet to advance.

CROATIA's "Cannibal Vegetarian" is said to be one of the most disturbing films in this year's competition. "Vegetarian" is about an unscrupulous gynecologist/surgeon, who performs abortions when the local mafia-owned prostitutes get pregnant. After botching an operation, he is ordered to perform an abortion on a woman who's already eight months along. A scene of animal cruelty is said to be particularly disturbing. The movie is said to be disturbing and depressing, but also fast-paced...one of those Eastern European films that makes you question whether life has any meaning. The larger committee will hate it, and I don't believe the film has what it takes to get "saved".

HUNGARY won the Silver Bear in Berlin for "Just the Wind", the story of a Roma family eking out a living against the backdrop of a series of racial murders targeting the Roma community. Despite its award in Berlin and generally positive reviews, "Just the Wind" is just the sort of slow, minimalist film with little dialogue that the Academy rarely chooses. Not everyone likes it, so it's probably out of luck here.


5. MACEDONIA- "The Third Half"
4. SERBIA- "When Day Breaks"
3. POLAND- "80 Million"

Important events in the 20th century histories of Poland and the former Yugoslavia form the plotlines of these three dramas.

If Oscars were given based on plots, then SERBIA's "When Day Breaks" would probably win this year, since it combines virtually all of Oscar's favorite themes (World War II!! Musical Composers!! Jews!!) in one film. In this Goran Paskaljevic film, a 70-year old Orthodox Serbian professor discovers that his real parents were Jewish deportees who gave him away to neighbors in order to save him from the Nazis during WWII. He finds that his father was a composer in pre-WWII Yugoslavia and sets out to have his last unfinished symphony performed. It's total Oscar bait, but reviews have been decidedly mixed in the West leading me to believe that it's a long shot for the shortlist. I'll see it in January when it premieres here in Washington, DC and make up my own mind.

POLAND's "80 Million" focuses not on World War II but on the Solidarity movement against Communism in the 1980s. It's an exciting, commercial thriller that sounds like a Hollywood heist film. In the film, a series of Solidarity (an anti-Communist labor group that helped overthrown Communist rule in Poland) activists race against the clock to save the group's assets from being seized by the Polish Communist government in 1981. They accomplish this by staging a daring bank robbery of some sort. This is the sort of light and entertaining but still serious movie that the Academy sometimes goes for. Perhaps it's a bit too commercial? We'll see....

A bigger long-shot is MACEDONIA's controversial "The Third Half", about a football (soccer) team in 1940s Macedonia, coached by a German Jew in what was then a region of Yugoslavia occupied by Nazi-allied Bulgaria. Bulgaria has strongly protested that the film incorrectly shows Bulgarians deporting Jews. The Macedonians say this indeed happened and that thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps in this way. The Oscar committee will likely know little or nothing about the controversy so that won't affect the film's chances in any way. The film hasn't made much of a blip outside of the Balkans. In its favor is its WWII theme and its exciting story. It also has the highest IMDB rating of all 71 films worldwide (although I'd say the voting looks SUSPICIOUSLY high....may be some vote stuffing involved). All in all, the politics and subject matter are probably a bit too obscure for the Oscar committee and I've heard that the mishmash of languages (Macedonian, Bulgarian, German, Serbian) makes it difficult for Westerners to figure out who's who....But who knows?


2. ROMANIA- "Beyond the Hills"
1. CZECH REPUBLIC- "In the Shadow"

Most people are certainly saying that ROMANIA's "Beyond the Hills"- winner of Best Actress and Best Screenplay at Cannes 2012- is one of the favorites. However, this two-and-a-half hour movie about two women, a convent, lesbianism (maybe?) and an exorcism (maybe?) is definitely too weird to make it out of the larger committee. In the film, a Romanian woman living in Germany journeys to a remote convent in rural Romania to meet the best friend from her youth. The woman demands that her friend return with her to the West. Her friend insists she will stay in the convent. From there, things go a bit haywire. Some say that the Oscars wouldn't ignore Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days") a second time, but "4 Months" was a much more popular film that "Hills". Reviews have been positive but not as strong as "4 Months", and the film earned only a single nomination (and no wins) at the European Film Awards (for Screenplay; it lost to a Danish film). It's entirely possible that the elite committee will "save" Mungiu in order to avoid a second snub. Indeed, that is "Hills" only chance....I think in the end, they're going to miss out.

That brings us to the CZECH REPUBLIC. The Czechs used to be a major power in this category, although they've only been nominated once in the past decade (for "Zelary", which I never got round to seeing). This year's nominee- "In the Shadow"- hasn't gotten much attention on the film festival circuit but it has gotten great reviews from those who have seen it, and it features a number of the themes that this category likes best. Shot in gorgeous film noir, this complicated mystery-thriller focuses on a routine burglary in 1953 Prague that proves to be part of a major conspiracy, leading to "show trials" in which many Czechoslovakians ending up being executed. Featuring strong acting performances and themes revolving around anti-Semitism, Communism, morality and all the big themes that Hollywood likes. "Shadow" has got a definite shot.

You can read statistics, further analysis and some general thoughts on this at the SOURCE


The Americas, Africa and The Middle East – 17 films


17. COLOMBIA- "The Snitch Cartel"
15. URUGUAY- "The Delay"
14. PERU- "The Bad Intentions"

A remake of a telenovela is not usually a country's choice for an Oscar nomination, but that's exactly what COLOMBIA has decided to do with action movie "The Snitch Cartel" (El Cartel de los Sapos) which is a retelling of the 2008 local soap opera of the same name, which in turn was based on the memoirs of a member of one of the country's most notorious drug gangs. While it features an A-list cast and is supposed to be an engaging watch, it really is just a big-screen soap and it won't be able to advance from here.

PERU has chosen "The Bad Intentions", an intriguing dark film about a morbid, upper-class 8-year old girl living amidst terrorism and political turmoil in the early 1980s. The girl, daughter of separated parents, announces that she will die the day that her pregnant mother gives birth. Think Wednesday Addams in "The Official Story", with a dash of "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Heavenly Creatures". These are some of my favorite films, and I can't wait to see it. But while reviewers tend to note debut director Rosario Garcia-Montero as one to watch, reviews have not been strong enough to carry it to the next round, nor has it won the sorts of awards like "Milk of Sorrow" to get a wild card slot.

I managed to see both "Jaque Mate" (DOMINICAN REPUBLIC) and "La Demora" (URUGUAY) at this year's Latin American Film Festival in DC, and I enjoyed both of these obscure films, especially the exciting "Jaque Mate". But they are completely out of their league here. VERY loosely based on a true story from the "Jaque Mate" (aka Check Mate) is the name of the Dominican Republic's most popular talk show, and it's handsome host lives a perfect life in a luxurious mansion with his beautiful wife and young son. During a live broacast, the host receives a phone call from a man who says he is holding his family at gunpoint and that they will not be let go unless he engages in a series of increasingly painful psychological games. It's a nail-biter and great fun to watch, but it's largely a commercial effort and the melodramatic acting won't suit the austere Academy . But I'm so happy the DR sent it, because otherwise I never would have heard of it! One of the more enjoyable films of 2012. URUGUAY's "The Delay" is also about the head of a family (this time an impoverished seamstress/single mother) guarding a secret. However, in all other ways this is the polar opposite of the loud and exciting "Jaque Mate". It's a very quiet, introspective drama about a desperate woman who, in a moment of weakness, abandons her senile father on a park bench in winter the hopes that the authorities will find and take care of him. When she feels guilty about her decision, she discovers him missing. It's a sad story but it's so subdued and quiet that it will easily get lost in the mix here.


13. MOROCCO- "Death for Sale"
12. PALESTINE- "When I Saw You"
11. VENEZUELA- "Rock, Paper, Scissors"
10. KENYA- "Nairobi Half Life"

These four obscure titles haven't made enough of an impact internationally to have a realistic chance of making it in such a competitive year.

KENYA had a film accepted to the Oscars for the first time (they reportedly sent a film- "Heart of Fire"- in 2008 but it was disqualified for not being a majority Kenyan production....it wasn't). Co-produced by German director Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"), "Nairobi Half Life" is an exciting fish-out-of-water story/crime drama about a young man newly arrived from the Kenya countryside, determined to make it in the dangerous capital of Nairobi. It is said to present an interesting and polished African twist on the traditional fish-out-of-water story with realism and a sense of humor. Youth, energy and dynamism is not often rewarded in this category so "Nairobi" definitely is a dark horse. If "City of God" couldn't make it, this can't either.

The Arab world sent only three films this year, and two of those were from MOROCCO and PALESTINE. Annemarie Jacir had to film "When I Saw You" in Jordan since she says she is no longer allowed to end the Palestinian Territories where she was born. "When I Saw You" is the story of a family torn apart by the 1967 war with Israel. Focusing on one 12-year old boy whose father is presumed dead and whose mother has fled with him to a Jordanian refugee camp, "When I Saw You" watches this young boy attempting to have a normal childhood in the camps amidst Islamic militants, poverty and, above all, an inability to return home.....The disaffected youth in the Moroccan thriller "Death for Sale" are a great deal older- probably their early 20s at least. When three unemployed young men become involved in a jewelry heist that goes wrong, their lives become even more dangerous than before. It won a minor award in Berlin and the trailer looks downright exciting. Reviews for both films have been mostly positive but not overwheling enough so to rise out of the pack.

VENEZUELA's thriller "Rock, Paper, Scissors" is largely a mystery. The obscure thriller came out of nowhere to grab the Venezuelan nomination. It's a dark tale revolving around two families- one rich, one poor- whose lives become intertwined in the Venezuelan capital amidst drugs, violence, and corruption. After many years of being a non-player in the 1990s, Venezuela has been sending a series of very strong urban drama to Los Angeles over the last few years. The trailer makes it look like a pretty standard melodrama. With zero buzz however, it's destined to be an also-ran.


9. ARGENTINA- "Clandestine Childhood"
8. BRAZIL- "The Clown"
7. ALGERIA- "Zabana!"
6. MEXICO- "After Lucia"

These four countries are usually strong threats in this category but will ultimately fail to advance this year for one reason or another.

Oscar has previously shown a great deal of interest in the Algerian war for independence ("Battle of Algiers", "Indigenes", "Outside the Law") as well as the Argentine military dictatorship ("The Official Story") and children in peril more generally. ARGENTINA's semi-autobiographical "Clandestine Childhood" swept the Argentine Oscars but this story of a 5th grader living under an assumed name due to his parents' anti-junta political activities has not gotten as strong reviews outside its home country and won few other awards. The Hollywood Reporter was particularly unkind, noting "the picture is too mainstream for arthouses, too arty for multiplexes". Despite the baity subject matter, they're probably out of luck. ALGERIA's "Zabana!" is a tougher one since there is so little information on it online. The film tells the story of the life and death of Algerian freedom fighter Ahmed Zabana, whose execution by the French in 1956 (by guillotine) was a turning point in the Algerian struggle for independence, and also the start of the Oscar nominated "Battle of Algiers" which represented Italy way back in 1966. In the end, I think the politics of the film may be too obscure and the profile of the film too low, but Oscar has shown itself to be passionate about this period of history so I can't be sure.

BRAZIL's "The Clown" was a box-office hit in its native Brazil, and it has gotten some great reviews, but also some pretty bad ones. Director Selton Mello plays part of a father-son team (he is the son) of clowns who work for a financially strapped circus and he's had enough of the aimless travelling circus life, working hard to make others laugh. Those who praise the film note the colors of the cinematography and the handling of the relationship between father and son. Those who hate it say it is slow and boring, despite its short running time, and that its jokes/humor consistently fall flat. Too divisive. I can't see it advancing.

The strongest of this particular group is MEXICO's "After Lucia", a topical film on the subject of bullying which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes 2012. Alejandra lives with her depressed, recently widowed father and has recently moved to another town. Initially popular, Alejandra makes an enemy of one of the popular girls during a drunken party, leading to painful and increasingly violent and disturbing bullying. Said to be shot in a spare minimalist style and uncomfortable to watch, I fear "Lucia" is not what this committee usually goes for.


5. SOUTH AFRICA- "Little One"
4. CHILE- "No"
3. CANADA- "War Witch" (aka Rebelle)

Now onto the real contenders....I'm pretty sure that one or maybe even two of these three films will make it onto the final list of Nine....but not all three. But who's in?

I definitely think it will be CANADA, who has made the shortlist five of the past six years. "War Witch" (a.k.a. "Rebelle", a much more appropriate title) tells the tragic story of a pregnant child soldier fighting in the Congo. The young girl has witnessed atrocities that would devastate a full-grown adult soldier (including the murder of her parents) but the film concentrates of the life of this young woman, rather than the horrors of war. Universally praised, "Witch" may be a bit more challenging that Oscar usually goes for (they usually avoid war unless it takes place in the trenches of 20th century Europe) but it has a good chance of advancing out of both the large and small committees

CHILE's "No", starring Gael Garcia Bernal, is cited all over the web as one of this year's front-runners but I think the film is going to be fighting hard for that ninth and final slot. "No" is the latest film from Pablo Larrain ("Tony Manero", "Post-Mortem") and it focuses on an ad man hired by the anti-Pinochet opposition to help use US-style advertising tactics to help win an anti-Pinochet referendum. The vote, which was thought to be unwinnable, ended up going against the military dictator and helped bring democracy to Chile. "No" has been widely praised for direction, script and filmmaking, but the decision to film it in a cinema-verite style makes the film look less technically impressive that it would otherwise. This may annoy many on the Oscar committee from the technical branches. I always think that's what doomed "4 Months, 3 Weeks"....not the abortion subject matter.

That brings us to SOUTH AFRICA and their "Little One", which has almost no buzz at all (not a single review online) but which has an Oscar-nominated director (Darrell Roodt) and baity subject matter (child rape). AMPAS has shown that they like these sorts of topical South African stories in the past (three of their last six submissions were shortlisted). In the film, a South Americans finds a child who has been brutalized and left for dead. It then appears that she steals her from state custody in order to take care of her. Oscar likes heartwarming stories of adults taking care of children and this one could definitely be a surprise nominee. It's a dark horse.


2. ISRAEL- "Fill the Void"
1. AUSTRALIA- "Lore"

And then there two....I think AUSTRALIA and ISRAEL both have an excellent chance of making the next round.

Nazi children in peril! World War II!!! It's difficult to see Oscar failing to fall for the charms of AUSTRALIA's German-language drama "Lore" (the name of the title character), which looks at a forgotten moment in World War II history. After the Germans are defeated, six siblings aged 1 to 19- all children of devoted Nazis- are forced to undertake a long journey to reach relatives in the aftermath of the German defeat and Allied occupation. It's exactly what Oscar likes and reviews have been very strong.

As for ISRAEL, they have achieved a remarkable record of four nominations in the past five years and they have an excellent chance at a fifth. "Fill the Void" is exactly the sort of voyeuristic look into an faraway culture that this category has traditionally honored. It's an intimate look into the world of Orthodox Jews in modern-day Israel through the eyes of a young bride looking forward to her arranged marriage to a good-looking young man. However, when her sister dies in childbirth, her family considers whether she should marry her sister's husband. It's a story that is said to be told with candor, tenderness and even humor.

You can read statistics, further analysis and some general thoughts on this at the SOURCE


Asia – 17 films


17. BANGLADESH- "Pleasure Boy Komola"
16. CHINA- "Caught in the Web"
15. INDIA- "Barfi!"
14. INDONESIA- "The Dancer"
13. JAPAN- "Our Homeland"
12. KYRGYZSTAN- "The Empty Home"
11. PHILIPPINES- "Bwakaw"
10. SINGAPORE- "Already Famous"
09. THAILAND- "Headshot"
08. VIETNAM- "The Scent of Burning grass"


PLEASURE BOY KOMOLA: A rich man enrages his wife when he gets obsessed with a sexy boy singer in famous Bengali writer Humayun Ahmed's last film before his July death from colon cancer.


CAUGHT IN THE WEB: Noted for historical epics like Farewell My Concubine, Chen Kaige portrays sleek modern China in what Young called "a fast-paced, masterful take on Internet character assassination."


BARFI!: Ranbir Kapoor's love-triangle comedy from Disney's Indian subsidiary UTV is full of homage scenes taken from Chaplin, Keaton and Singin' in the Rain. Fun! It has passed the 1 billion rupee mark ($20 million) at the box office, qualifying it as a blockbuster.


THE DANCER: During the 1965 Indonesian massacres, a mystically gifted dancer has a star-crossed love affair with a young soldier.


OUR HOMELAND: A period piece about the exodus of ethnic Koreans from Japanese to North Korean territory, and specially the autobiographical story of a Korean-Japanese man who returns to Japan after 25 years.


THE EMPTY HOME: The modern-day story of a young Kyrgyz woman who goes to Moscow to seek a better life won the top prize at the Shaken's Stars film festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan.


BWAKAW: The Philippines has never nabbed an Oscar nom, but who knows? People at the New York Film Festival (including the selection committee) were high on this tale of a curmudgeonly old gay guy (veteran tough guy Eddie Garcia), a stray dog and unrequited love.


ALREADY FAMOUS: Singaporean actress Michelle Chong wrote, directed and acts in this story about a Malaysian country girl who dreams of becoming a TV star in Singapore.


HEADSHOT: Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Buddhist noir swept the Thai national awards and was a Tokyo Grand Prix nom, though it might be too gruesome for the Academy.


THE SCENT OF BURNING GRASS: Nineteen years after The Scent of Green Papaya's nomination, Vietnam submits this 1972 war drama, a winner of four top national awards.


07. CAMBODIA- "Lost Loves"
06. HONG KONG- "Life Without Principle"
05. KAZAKHSTAN- "Myn Bala"
04. MALAYSIA- "Bunohan"
03. TAIWAN- "Touch of the Light"


LOST LOVES: A mother tries to protect her family during the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s. The director and lead actress are married. This is Cambodia's first submission since 1994.

LIFE WITHOUT PRINCIPLE: A darkly comic financial thriller that's a relatively modest hit in Hong Kong compared to director Johnnie To's usual box-office stats. It has dozens of nominations across the Asian festivals and a few minor wins, but the surprise inclusion of To's new film Drug War in the Rome Film Festival competition could keep him in the public eye as voting gets underway.


MYN BALA: WARRIORS OF THE STEPPE: The country spent $7 million on this historical epic, about Kazakhs fending off 18th century Mongols, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of modern Kazakhstan (and maybe help undo the damage by Borat). AMPAS did like Mongol, another bloody war epic.


BUNOHAN: This offbeat, meditative look at life in a village whose name translates to "murder" is set against a backdrop of crime and kickboxing. As THR's John DeFore pointed out, the "artful Malaysian offering is only superficially about martial arts and gangsters."


TOUCH OF THE LIGHT: A polished, schmaltzy true story of a blind pianist that may play better in Asia than with the Academy.


2. AFGHANISTAN - "The Patience Stone"
1. SOUTH KOREA- "Pieta"

If not by anything else, both of these films have acclaimed directors that are bound to attract some more attention to their respective projects.


Hoping to rebottle the lightning of Asghar Farhadi's 2011 Iranian Oscar winner A Separation -- despite Iran's boycott of the 2012 Oscars -- Sony Pictures Classics presents Atiq Rahimi's drama THE PATIENCE STONE adapted from his Prix Goncourt-winning novella about a Muslim wife (Golshifteh Farahani, star of Farhadi's About Elly) who speaks her mind because her husband's in a coma. Talky, but so was A Separation.


PIETA: Kim Ki-duk's violent dystopia is South Korea's first film to win a best picture award at a major festival. Two disadvantages: its graphic amputation scenes and controversy over the fact that Pieta was the Michael Mann-led Venice jury's second choice when rules prohibited giving awards to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.


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