Countries Jockey for Position in Oscar's Foreign-Language Category

The first entries in an always controversial category range from immigrant sagas to political dramas to romantic comedies.

Taiwan submitted a movie whose title is in Spanish. Spain considered a movie called “Map of the Sounds of Toyko.” Germany and Austria fought over a movie they both want to submit. The Netherlands submitted a movie with much of the dialogue in English, and Kazahkstan submitted one in which nobody talks at all.

 

Welcome to the Academy’s foreign-language film category, where things are always confusing, usually controversial and frequently confrontational.

 

The official deadline for submissions is October 1, by which point each country must submit a single film to the Academy. That’s when you get the first round of complaints, as various countries submit what critics, cineastes and other interested parties are sure are the absolute wrong films.

 

The movies they foolishly submit will then be screened for any Academy members with the time and the inclination to watch a lot of foreign films; from their votes, and the input of a blue-ribbon committee, a shortlist of about 15 films will be compiled. (Above, that's Germany's submission, "The White Ribbon. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Then, no doubt, the second batch of complaints will begin, since that first round of voters has been notoriously unreceptive to the toughest and grittiest of international cinema.

 

With thanks to In Contention, Screen International, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the Gold Derby Forums at The Envelope, all of whom have done a lot of heavy lifting on this topic, here’s a list of who, as far as I can determine, is in the running so far:

Albania: “Alive!”

An Albanian college student returns to his mountain village for a funeral, gets caught up in the generations-long feud that has consumed the town, and then returns to the city to find his urban lifestyle threatened by the deadly traditions of his past. Writer/director Artan Minarolli says his film, made by a cast and crew of 15 different nationalities, was “born out of the need to show the colors and the complexity of a world in transition towards something mysterious and beautiful.”

Variety was lukewarm about the result, saying, “the shadow of the past and the burden of emigration hang heavy over the proceedings, though Minarolli … struggles to synthesize his ambitious themes, offering general outlines where telling details should be.”  (Poster: WILDart FILM)

Cineuropa page.

Official website.

 

 

Argentina: “The Secret in Their Eyes”

A combination crime drama and love story, director Juan Jose Campanella’s first feature in five years (he’s been directing television, including episodes of “Law and Order: SVU” and “House”) deals with a former investigator who develops an obsession with a 35-year-old murder case. The film shifts back and forth between time periods as the investigator finds himself falling for his boss and drawn into dangerous situations.

The Hollywood Reporter called it “a riveting Argentine thriller spiked with witty dialogue and poignant love stories,” and predicted widespread international appeal. Screen Daily, meanwhile, found its length and pacing a problem, but said the film “packs an emotional punch,” which often as not is what the Oscar foreign-language voters are looking for. Campanella’s 2001 film “Son of the Bride” is a previous nominee in this category.

Official site, with trailer. (Spanish)

Armenia: "A Magician’s Autumn"

With a big musical (“Nine”) inspired by Fellini’s “8 ½” on the way, and the Academy mounting a recent exhibition of Fellini’s dream journals, why not another movie with a connection to the celebrated Italian filmmaker? Ruben and Vahe Gevorkyants have made a documentary about Tonino Guera, a close friend of Fellini and a screenwriter (“L’Avventura,” “Blowup,” “Amarcord”) who has worked with a variety of directors, also including Michaelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky. The Golden Apricot International Film Festival called the multi-faceted Guera “the last representative of the Italian renaissance.”

Peripherally, Guera may be back in the Oscar mix this year as one of the credited screenwriters of “Everybody’s Fine,” the upcoming film that has gotten some awards attention for Robert DeNiro’s performance.  (In fact, he cowrote the 1990 Giuseppi Tornatore version of "Everybody's Fine," "Stanno tutti bene," on which this is based.)  

At some festival showings, "A Magician's Autumn" has been referred to as “Autumn of the Magician.”

Arminfo News Agency story.

RIFF Movies Archive.

 

 

Australia: “Samson & Delilah”

As a predominantly English-speaking country, it’s rare for Australia to have a horse in this race – the country has submitted films four times in the past, but never been nominated. Hoping to buck the trend is this critically acclaimed drama about a romance between two Aboriginal teenagers who flee their homes when one of them is blamed for a death in the family. Low-key, often bleak, and performed by largely non-professional actors, Warwick Thornton’s drama, with dialogue in both English and Warlpiri, has received rapturous praise in Australia (“a triumph for all concerned … something close to a masterpiece … one of the finest films ever made in this country”).

It also seems to travel well, winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes in May. Variety predicted that it’ll become “a pillar of the fest circuit” in a review that began, “A meticulous portrayal of the chaotic existence endured by two Aboriginal teens on an Outback reserve, ‘Samson & Delilah’ is an engrossing and touching snapshot of an Australia too often left on the cutting-room floor.”

Official site.
 

 

Austria: "For a Moment, Freedom"

Three separate groups try to smuggle friends or relatives out of Iran, establishing a fragile community of refugees in Ankara, Turkey. Variety called the first feature from Austrian-based former documentarian Arash T. Riahi “yet another immigrant-in-peril border-crossing tale,” but they went on to praise the film’s balance of “realism, polish, warmth, suspense, humor and tragedy.”  The blog “Neil Young’s Film Lounge,” however, found it melodramatic and manipulative.  (Photo: Olaf Benold)

The trailer.

The official website. 

 

Bangladesh: “Beyond the Circle”

Director Golam Rabbany Biplob won acclaim for his last film, “On the Wings of Dreams.” His followup is a fable of sorts, dealing with a traditional, rural musician who becomes a hot property when he’s discovered by a reporter and brought to the big city. The Toronto Film Festival catalog called the film’s music “sublime” and praised Biplob for finding a fresh way to tell the age-old tale of an innocent corrupted.

Variety was less kind, calling the film an “overly didactic political fable” and “a well-intentioned but melodramatic critique of media spin and the market economy … [that] lacks the genuine charm and sincerity” of Biplob’s debut.

 

Belgium: “The Misfortunates”


Variety called director Felix van Groeningen’s film “a visually robust and often hilarious Flemish tragicomedy,” though it deals with a family of drunken lowlifes not ordinarily apt to find a sympathetic audience among Academy voters. The sympathy, though, might go to the film’s protagonist, a13-year-old boy who grows up in the chaotic household.

Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst, the episodic film jumps back and forth over a few decades, with raucous comedy reportedly giving way to a more bittersweet, emotional tone.

Hollywood Reporter review.

Variety review.

ABC Melbourne review.

Certainly the only teaser trailer in the competition that features nude bicyclists racing to the strains of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”

The official site.

 

Bolivia: “Southern Zone”


Set in an upper-class household in La Paz, during a time of social upheaval in Bolivia, “Zona Sur” was envisioned by director Juan Carlos Valdivia as more of a comedy, and then evolved in “a piece of a more thoughtful nature.” It deals with a rich family living in a bubble of comfort in the Southern District of La Paz, with the servants who help them maintain that bubble, and with the forces that eventually, in the words of the film’s official synopsis, “make the bubble burst.”

Valdivia’s film “American Visa” was Bolvia’s official submission in 2006, but did not receive a nomination.

Official website.

The trailer.
 

Bosnia and Herzegovina: “Guardians of the Night”

A Sarajevo-set film called “Guardians of the Night” conjures up images of war zones and devastation, but the setting for director Namik Kabil’s film is considerably more prosaic: it’s about a pair of night watchmen who meet after hours in a large department store. One man has odd stomach pains, and thinks he might be pregnant; the other is diet-obsessed and a devotee of self-help tapes. The country’s history of conflict intrudes when a neighbor across the street, a war veteran, keeps triggering the alarm system and summoning the police.

Action is reportedly at a minimum; it’s just a night inside the store with a couple of odd characters who come to a few realizations by their morning coffee. The director calls it “a one night introspection.”

 

Cineuropa film profile.

Trailer (not in English, but not much dialogue).

Music video set to scenes from the film.
 

Brazil: “Salve Geral”


The true events that inspired this film became known as “the Brazilian September 11th,” and that connection with American history was clearly one of the factors that went into the selection of director Sergio Rezende’s $4 million drama. Brazil’s audiovisual secretary, Silvio Da-Rin, told Screen Daily that the choice was made because of the film’s “artistic and technical quality, the sum invested in the budget and the contemporaneity of the subject.” Added the film’s producer, Joaquim Vaz de Carvalho, “We believe the relevance of the them will help us attract the Academy members’ attention.”

“Salve Geral” deals with a wave of attacks a Brazilian criminal organization, the PCC, made on various Sao Paolo targets in 2006, and about life inside a violent prison, and about a mother’s attempt to get her son out of that prison. Last year’s Brazilian entry, Bruno Barreto’s “Last Stop 174,” dealt with another true-crime event, a bus hijacking in Rio de Janeiro; it didn’t make the shortlist.

 

Screen Daily article.

Trailer with amateur English subtitles.

Official website (in Portuguese).

Bulgaria: "The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner"

Suffering from amnesia, a young boy tries to discover his identity with the help of his grandfather; apparently, much backgammon-playing and tandem-bicycle-riding ensues. Based on a Bulgarian bestseller by Ilija Trojanow, Stephan Komandarev’s film has played at more than 20 festivals in recent months. Variety called it “a sweet, old-fashioned intergenerational drama whose uneven pitch distracts from genuinely beautiful moments.”

 

The trailer (in Bulgarian, without subtitles). 

 

A music video that makes the movie look a lot sillier than it probably is. 

 

The official site

 

Canada: “I Killed my Mother”

Xavier Dolan, the writer, director and star of “J’ai tue ma mere (I Killed My Mother),” was initially reluctant to make his debut film, the semi-autobiographical story of a young gay man and his dark, troubling relationship with his mother. When the film played in the Directors Fortnight program at Cannes, though, it won three awards and received an eight-minute standing ovation. “Dolan’s sizable maturity and self-assurance as a filmmaker is clear in every frame” of the film, wrote the Canadian, gay-themed website Xtra.ca.

 

Despite its rapturous reception at Cannes, the film has divided viewers. The Hollywood trades took similar stances: Variety called it “amusing but undisciplined,” while the Hollywood Reporter opted for “uneven but funny.” Screen Daily, meanwhile, enthused that it was “a stunning, semi-autobiographical tour de force” and “a film with the sting of shrewdly observed truth.” As for Dolan, he has given interviews pronouncing himself surprised and intimidated to be competing in the same category with the likes of Germany’s “The White Ribbon” and France’s “A Prophet.”

CBC News story.

Official Rezo Films page (includes subtitled trailer).

K-Films Amerique page (French).

 

Chile: "Dawson, Isla 10"

 

Miguel Littin’s film looks to be a brutal, serious, presumably life-affirming look at the Chilean prison camp established for political prisoners after the country’s 1973 coup. It’s based on the autobiography of Sergio Bitar, the minister of mining in Allende’s government and an inmate of the camp. (He now works for President Michelle Bachelet’s government; she attended a recent screening and, according to the English-language Chilean paper the Santiago Times, gave the film a glowing review and urged young Chileans to see it to understand why they should “care for our country, our democracy and our freedom.”) (Photo: actor Bertrand Duarte. Azul Films)

 

Curiously, two of Littin’s previous films have been nominated for best foreign films – but from two different countries and in two different decades. The first was “Letters from Marusia,” Mexico’s nominee in 1976; the second was “Alsino and the Condor,” Nicaragua’s nominee in 1983.

 

The trailer.

 

The official website (in Spanish).

 

China: “Forever Enthralled”

The big selling point for this bio of famed Peking Opera performer Mei Lanfang is its director, Chen Kaige. His films have been nominated in this category twice before, and “Farewell My Concubine” won. That makes him a safe choice – and a more politic one than the obvious alternative, which would have been to go with the harrowing and gripping “City of Life and Death,” chosen by critics as the second-best film at Toronto.

“Forever Enthralled” did not receive the same kind of reviews: Variety called it “an occasionally engaging but largely workmanlike biopic … that rarely achieves the artistic elevation it strives for and needs to succeed.” But the film’s standing within its home country was signaled when Chen Kaige won the best director award at the Huabiao film awards, which are run by the Chinese government and, in the words of the Associated Press, “have a reputation for honoring propaganda films but have incorporated commercial cinema.”

Beyond Hollywood review.

Official site.
 

Columbia: “The Wind Journeys”

After the death of his wife, a celebrated Columbian musician embarks on a final trek across the mountainous northern reaches of his country, determined to return his accordion (reputed to have once belonged to the devil) to the man who gave it to him. Along the way, he meets a teenager who wants to become a traveling musician himself. “For centuries we’ve asked ourselves: What keeps us apart?” says director Ciro Guerra. “Now it is time to ask what brings us together.”

On the Macleans website, Brian D. Johnson said Guerra’s film was his favorite from the Toronto Film Festival, calling it “a brilliant, beautiful work of pure cinema.” Variety praised everything from the spectacular mountain vistas to the “fundamental honesty” of Guerra’s script.

Screenrush page.

Official site.
 

 

Croatia: “Donkey”

The movie’s title refers to a creature beloved by the son of the film’s protagonist, but it’s also a pejorative used to refer to a stubborn man – for instance, the main character in director Antonio Nuic’s story of a man still consumed by old hatreds as he returns to his home village for the first time in almost a decade. Set in a ravaged country in the mid-‘90s, the film is “a family melodrama … wrapped in the harsh trappings of wartime Croatia,” according to Screen Daily, which summed it up like this: “Essentially a picture of brutish, stubborn men and the women who put up with them during a summer holiday in the barren hills of Herzegovina, the film is the antithesis of a Hollywood home-for-the-holidays ensemble.”

Director Nuic calls it “a film of fatherhood.” “Donkey” won the best screenplay, music and cinematography awards at the Pula Film Festival.

Cineuropa page.

Official site.
l

The Czech Republic: “Protector”

It sometimes seems as if a year never goes by without at least one World War II-themed film in the Oscar foreign-language race, and the Czech Republic’s entry is one of several 2009 submissions that deal with various facets of that conflict. In this case, the protagonist of director Marek Najbrt’s film is a Czechoslovakian radio journalist who collaborates with the Nazis in an attempt to protect his Jewish wife, only to learn the perils of that collaboration when his actress wife defies the new laws that prohibit Jewish performers from making public appearances. “In dark times,” reads the official site, “a man can become a hero even if it’s the last thing he wants to do.”

The $4 million film “is a story of two lovers, which suddenly becomes a drama,” the director told Film New Europe. “A love story changes into a story of self-destruction.”  Czech Film Center has an intriguing description that ends, “Radio, the bicycle of resistance, paratrooper Kubis, love, morphine and a mythical phantom of the days of the Protectorate in Prague all play indispensable roles.”

Official site.

Trailer (no subtitles)
 

Denmark: “Terribly Happy”

 

It’s a crime story set in a small village in Denmark, it’s been compared to a Coen Brothers movie, it dominated the Danish Bodil Awards with six wins, and an English-language remake is already in the works. The news has been good for director Henrik Ruben Genz, who was nominated for an Oscar for the short “Teis & Nico” more than a decade ago.

“Terribly Happy” deals with a lawman sent to a small Danish town, where, wrote The Gazette when the film played a Quebec film festival, he’s “emeshed in an intricate web of gossip, suspicion and, eventually, murder.” Reviewers have said the camera work is inventive and talked about languid pacing but a tense feel; Variety dubbed it “a blackly comic thriller about the universal nature of compromise and corruption.” If it’s not too black and too twisted, this one might be stylish enough to get some attention from voters who might usually tend toward heftier fare – though the lack of an emotional hook can always be a problem in this category.  Oscilloscope has the U.S. rights.

Hollywood Reporter story.

Twitch asks if Genz is the Danish answer to the Coens.

Subtitled trailer.

 

Finland: "Letters to Father Jacob"

Unexpectedly pardoned, a female prisoner goes to work as the secretary to the blind pastor in a small, remote Finnish village.  Each day’s mail brings a new stack of letters asking Father Jacob for help; when they suddenly stop, the parsonage is thrown into turmoil.

Klaus Haro’s film was originally made for television, until its producers decided it had potential as a theatrical release.  Variety called it “a simple but transcendent story about faith and human frailty.”  The film is reportedly dominated by its two lead actors, Kaarina Hazard as the ex-con and Heikki Nousiainen as the priest. 

Finnish Film Foundation site.

Cineuropa film profile.

 

France: "A Prophet"

 France is the 800-pound gorilla in this category, the prime reason why many people think it's silly that each country is allowed to submit only a single film — and, perhaps, a big reason why the Academy retains that rule, lest a slate of French films compete with each other every year.  Like the past two French entries, "The Class" and "Persepolis," "A Prophet" is coming off a successful showing at Cannes.  ("The Class" was nominated but lost to the friendlier, more stylish "Departures"; "Persepolis" won an animated-feature nomination but was famously snubbed in the foreign film category.)

Directed by Jacques Audiard, the film deals with an illiterate 19-year-old criminal sentenced to six years in prison, and the gang life he finds – and flourishes in – behind bars. Variety called it “a tough, absorbingly intricate account of a young French-Arab thug’s improbable education behind bars,” and “a solid, sinewy pulp fiction with strong arthouse prospects.”  When IndieWIRE polled 16 critics and bloggers at Cannes, the film emerged as their top choice. It has the feel of the kind of movie that might be shunned by voters but added to the shortlist by the executive committee. (Right, Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim in “A Prophet.” Photo by Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics)

 

Official site (French). 

Germany: "The White Ribbon"

The most contentious choice so far – not because of anything that’s on the screen, but because Germany snatched it out from under the nose of Austria, which wanted to submit this as its own Oscar entry. Director Michael Haneke (“Cache”), probably the most high-profile filmmaker in the race at this point, was born in Germany but lives in Austria; the producers and the crew are divided between the two countries.

 Shot in black and white and set in a small German village on the eve of World War I, Haneke’s film has garnered more acclaim than any other film in the mix right now, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. If it has an Achilles heel with Oscar voters, it may be in what Variety called Haneke’s “conspicuously dim view of the world,” his “notion that malice is arguably the dominant human trait.” Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in the United States in December.

The trailer.

The official website (German).

  

Hong Kong: "Prince of Tears"

 Another film that delves into an ugly past, director Yonfan’s “Prince of Tears” has a lavish, stunning look that offsets its grim tale of Taiwan’s bloody Communist witch hunt of the 1950s. Well-received at the Venice Film Festival, it’s nonetheless considered a tough sell because of its gay subtext. Said Variety, “First Taiwan-based movie by Chinese vet Yonfan is more a lush meller set during the commie witch-hunt period than a real exploration of the island's darkest political scar.”

A trailer with barely legible English subtitles.

 

Hungary: "Chameleon"

It’s about a young man who charms, seduces and robs women … but he just might have met his match when he sets his sights on a former dancer. Is it a romantic comedy or a noir thriller? Probably more of the latter, which is a good for the Oscar prospects of the third feature from Krisztina Goda, whose two previous films, “Just Sex and Nothing Else” and “Children of Glory,” were the biggest Hungarian hits of 2005 and 2006. 

Clearly, this is more mainstream than many foreign-language submissions: Screen Daily called it “an entertaining thriller with wester-style production polish, a plot which offers its fair share of surprises, and an impressive lead performance from Ervin Nagy.” Truth be told, western-style production polish is not often what the foreign language voters look for, though it might please a few weary viewers after too much grit from other competitors.

Variety’s review.

The film’s page at Cineuropa.

 

A subtitled trailer.

 

India: “Harishchandrachi Factory”

 

A couple of big Bollywood hits were in the running to be India’s official Oscar submission, but in the end a slice of Indian film history won out over current favorites. A unanimous choice from the Film Federation of India, “Harishchandrachi Factory” tells the story of director Dadasaheb Phalke and his struggle to make the film “Raja Harishchandra,” a 1913 production that was the country’s first feature film.

 The film was made after director Paresh Mokashi conducted extensive research into the methods Phalke used to make his film, and then opted for a “chronological, linear and very basic” approach. He also decided to keep the film light and focus on what he calls “the ‘adventurer’ side of Phalke’s character.” Unlike most of the highest-profile Indian films, Mokashi’s movie was made not in Hindi, but in the regional Marathi language.

 

Hindustan Times story.

Indian TV report on the selection.

Official website.

A quick trailer.

Iran: “About Elly”

A young teacher disappears during a trip to the north of Iran. Is she still alive? And can any of the university friends with whom she was traveling be trusted? Variety’s review says that the drama “casts a revealing light on the elaborate culture of deceit that’s part of modern Iranian society with this talky, overlong drama about upper-middle-class Tehranis on a catastrophic seaside holiday.” The Hollywood
Reporter, less concerned with the movie’s two-hour running time, called it “a taut, involving drama” that “confirms director Asghar Farhadi as a major talent in Iranian cinema whose ability to chronicle the middle-class malaise of his society is practically unrivaled.”

 

The film won the Silver Bear award for best director at the Berlin Film Festival, and also picked up honors at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and the Brisbane International Film Festival. “Over the past few years,” wrote Kellen Quinn in the Tribeca Film Festival program, “Farhadi has emerged as a preeminent creative force in Iranian cinema and has done so in part by making sophisticated dramas about the oft-overlooked Iranian middle class.”

Dear Cinema review.

 

Trailer (subtitled in French).

Official site.

 

 

Japan: "Dare Mo Mamotte Kurenai (Nobody to Watch Over Me)"

A Japanese version of “The Bodyguard”? One IMDb user who’s seen it suggested as much, which wouldn’t be the most Oscar-worthy recommendation. Produced by Fuji TV and directed by Ryoichi Kimizuki, the film centers on a teenage girl whose brother is arrested for a brutal murder, and the police detective who’s assigned to protect her from a voracious media and an angry public.

The movie’s Film Asia page

 

The Japanese trailer at Nippon Cinema.

 

A very positive review at SBCC.

Kazakhstan: "Kelin"

 

Here’s an odd one: a film entered in the foreign-language category in which there’s no language whatsoever. Set in the distant past in the snowy Altai Mountains, it deals with an arranged marriage, a pair of suitors, and the usual amounts of love and betrayal. Director Ermek Tursunov tells the story wordlessly, making it something of a rarity (and perhaps a longshot) in a category that’s called “foreign language film,” not “foreign film.”
Variety called it “a stylish example of the genre … Beautifully shot, amusingly written and handsomely produced, ‘Kelin’ will draw auds looking for a blast of exotica, though there's not much else underneath the heavy fur coats."

Toronto International Film Festival page

 

Korea: "Mother"

On these shores, the best-known Korean film of the year is Park Chan-wook’s vampire story “Thirst.” But the Korean juries charged with picking their country’s Oscar submission didn’t think that film would appeal to Academy voters, so they turned to Bong Joon-ho’s “Mother,” a more universal drama from the man who directed “The Host,” the country’s biggest boxoffice hit ever.

 

The film centers on a woman who fights to prove the innocence of her mentally-challenged son, who’s been accused of murder. The Hollywood Reporter reviewed the movie at Cannes and called it “a superb murder mystery” that “zooms in on one character with smothering intensity to examine the primal; quality of motherhood.”  “I wanted the story tragic,” the director told Reuters.  Magnolia has U.S. distribution rights, and plans to release the film early next year.

 

The official website is in Korean. 

The trailer is at Han Cinema, but it’s in Korean, too.
 

 

Lithuania: “Duburys (Waterhole)”

Based on the acclaimed novel by Romualdas Granauskas, “Waterhole” marks a return to the screen for Lithuanian director Gytis Luksas. Shot in black and white, the film covers the Soviet period in Lithuania through the story of a boy in a small village; it’s divided into three parts, covering childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The film, director and committee chief Audrius Stonys said, is “the first telling story about the way the Soviet times affected a human’s soul and body.”

Short story on The Baltic Course website.
 

Luxembourg: “Réfractaire”


World War II … Europe … A young man who deserts rather than fight on the side of the Nazis. So far, it sounds just like what the foreign-language voters are often looking for, although the film, which reportedly took seven years to produce, hasn’t screened much outside of a Luxembourg release and showings at Cannes’ Marche du Film, the market that runs simultaneously with the festival.

Official site (Iris Productions).

Trailer (no English subtitles).
 

Mexico: “Backyard”


Directort Carlos Carrera has been in the Oscar race before: six years ago, his Mexican blockbuster “The Crime of Father Amaro” won a nomination in this category. His new film deals with a detective investigating the murder of young, female sweatshop workers near the border in Ciudad Juarez. Ana de la Reguera plays the central detective, while Co-star Jimmy Smits gives “Backyard” (“El Traspatio”) one of the most familiar faces to be seen in any of this year’s foreign-film competitors.

Less commercial successful than Carrera’s previous film, “Backyard” has also picked up mixed reviews: Screen Daily called it “an earnest melodrama that exhumes the corpses but never finds the drama to match its horror.” Reel Film Reviews said the film starts out promisingly but turns into “a progressively tedious experience,” which does not bode well for its reception among Oscar voters.

Reuters story.

Screen Daily review

Spanish trailer

Morocco: "Casanegra"

Variety calls this tale of two small-time Casablanca hoodlums “a cross between classic film noir and ‘Mean Streets.’” The realistic portrayal of dead-end lives of crime didn’t play well with Oscar voters who rejected “Gomorra” last year, but “Casanegra” sounds energetic and stylish where “Gomorra” was deliberately raw and relentless.

MoroccoBoard.com: “From alcoholism and drug use to domestic violence and social exploitation, [director] Nour-Eddine [Lakhmari] did not shy away from addressing social illnesses in an artistic and cinematographically savvy manner.”
 

The Netherlands: "Silent Army"

A film about child soldiers in Africa is the most controversial entrant so far, and the subject of an organized campaign from other Dutch filmmakers afraid that it eventually be disqualified by the Academy for having too much English dialogue and too much creative input from outside the Netherlands. Holland Film, the government agency responsible for the selection, is reportedly re-examining the choice.

 

Even before that, the film had a checkered history. First released in the Netherlands in 2008, and substantially re-edited after a mixed critical reaction, writer/director Jean van de Velde’s film has continued to have a rough go of it with many critics: Variety, for instance, dubbed it “well-intentioned but at times thoroughly silly.”  Screen Daily was kinder: “It’s an ethical stretch to make a campaigning film about the plight of African child soldiers that is also in some ways an action movie – especially with a Dutch pop singer in the lead role,” read the review, which concluded that the movie “mostly rises to the challenge.

The official site (Dutch).

Information about the film at the War Child website. 

 

Philippines: “Ded na Si Lolo”


The way in which society deals with death was a potent subject last year for the Japanese film “Departures,” a surprise winner in the foreign film category. “Ded na si Lolo” may have some surface similarities – it focuses on the way families handle the passing of a loved one, and the particular rituals of a specific culture – but the gentle, emotional tone of “Departures” is nowhere in sight in writer/director Soxie Topacio’s broad low-budget comedy.

Siege Malvar, a young-adult novelist in the Philippines, called the film “brilliantly cathartic” and dubbed it “the year’s must-see movie,” though his enthusiasm seems unlikely to transfer to Academy members. If the trailer is a remotely reliable way to get a handle on the film, this one may be way too slapsticky for Oscar voters.

A story at the Philippine Entertainment Portal.

A gay-oriented Filipino website that praises the film’s “edge-of-sanity bombast.”

A trailer – no subtitles, but it’s mostly screaming, fainting and fighting anyway.
 

Poland: “Rewers (Reverse)”

Shot in black and white, “Reverse” is the narrative feature debut of director Borys Lankosz, who became known as a director of documentaries. The film is set in 1952; its central character, Sabina, played by Agata Buzek, is a 30-year-old woman who works for a publisher, and whose relatives are constantly trying to find an appropriate suitor for her. A rough-hewn young man enters her life and transforms things for Sabina, her mother, and her grandmother.  (Photo: Anna Polony, Agata Buzek and Krystyna Janda in “Reverse”)

The film’s page at the recent Polish Film Festival, where it won the top jury prize.

 

Portugal: “Un Amor de Perdicao (Doomed Love)”

Cinematographer-turned-director Mario Barroso tells the story the story of a combative, self-destructive teenager from a wealthy Portuguese family. When he becomes enamored of a mysterious young woman, his personality changes – but a business rivalry pushes the story in “Romeo and Juliet” territory. In some ways an adaptation of the classic 19th Century Portuguese novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it’s also a film in which the main character reads that novel, and other characters have seen the previous screen versions.

 

One of the great accomplishments of ‘Un Amor de Perdiçao is to keep on being a passionate, tragic, and thrilling melodrama without letting itself be controlled by clichés but coexisting with them,” read a description when the film played at this year’s Buenos Aires Festival International De Cine Independiente.

 

Film.com synopsis.

 

Official website.
 

 

Romania: "Police, Adjective"

 

Corneliu Porumbolu’s film centers on small-town cops who go after a teenager for sharing hash with his friends; it’s not a whodunit or a procedural, but, said indieWIRE, a look at “the capricious nature of law.” In a Cannes report from the New York Times, Manohla Dargis said, “this deadpan meditation on authority and moral conscience is…one of the finest films at this year’s festival.”

Of course, the last acclaimed Romanian film to figure in the Oscar race was “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which bowled over critics but did not impress the Academy’s foreign language voters, who shockingly left it off the shortlist of films in contention. IFC, which has the American rights to this one, will try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

 

Variety review.

IFC site.

Trailer, in Romanian. 

 

Serbia: “St. George Shoots the Dragon”

Serbia’s original submission in this category, “Here and There,” was a lighter film set partly in New York City; when the amount of English dialogue in that film could have proved problematic, the country pulled it and went with this lavish war film, one of the most expensive ever made in Serbia. Set in a small village near the Austria-Hungary border in the years prior to World War I, the film deals with a love triangle, and with tensions between able-bodied young men and wounded war veterans.

The Times BFI London Film Festival described it as “an ambitious, swaggering blend of Zhivago-esque historical romance and Kusturica-style rural grotesque,” which could all be good things: Ambition, scale, emotion and war often play well with Oscar voters. Still, the film was not especially well received upon its release earlier this year. “The film’s potential of being a Griffith-like historical melodrama and spectacle – with the heart breaking love story placed against a turbulent and magnificent historical era … is almost completely missed,” wrote Nevena Dakovic at the University of Arts, Belgrade.

A six-minute subtitled trailer, so overheated and replete with sex, violence and dramatic choral music that it almost plays like parody.

The official site (English version).


 

Slovakia: “Broken Promise”

World War II, the Holocaust, a true coming-of-age story … Slovakia’s entry sounds tailor-made to appeal to the Academy’s foreign-language voters, though whether it’ll be distinctive enough to stand out in a field full of wartime dramas remains to be seen. The film is based on the story of Martin Friedmann, a young Slovak Jew whose life changes dramatically when his country makes an alliance with Nazi Germany.

Director Jiri Chumsky, says Robert Hawk of FILMHAWK.com, “offers a virtually singular experience: a Holocaust film without one scene in a death camp.” The film won the “best narrative feature” award at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival in April, and has played a handful of other festivals.

A review from Jweekly.com, covering the film’s showing at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

A fact sheet from the film’s North American distributor, Picture This Entertainment.

A subtitled scene.

Trailer (no subtitles).

Slovenia: “Pokrajina Št. 2”

Slovenia’s candidate, which has been playing international festivals for some time, deals with the executions of Nazi collaborators following World War II; according to the film’s official website, the action is set in motion when a pair of burglars steal a valuable painting (“Landscape No. 2,” which is the film’s English title). The film, according to director Vinko Moderndofer, “builds on the realization that unresolved past, personal or national, leaves its mark and keeps coming back.”

 

In June, it won a screenplay award at the Brooklyn International Film Festival. In 2008, it won six awards, including best film, at the 11th Festival of Sovenian Film. Variety called it audacious and superbly crafted – though it also suggested that the target audience was viewers “not scared by extreme sex and violence,” which does not exactly sound like most Oscar voters.  (Marko Mandic in “Pokrajina St. 2.” Photo: Zelijko Stevanic)

Official site.

The trailer (no subtitles).

 

South Africa “White Wedding”

South Africa’s entry looks to be one of the sunniest movies in competition. Directed by Jann Turner and produced by two of its stars, the film is a road film about a guy named Elvis making long trip to pick up his best man and get to his wedding on time; along the way he misses the bus, misses his bachelor party, complications ensue…  The official site calls it “an appealing, feel-good movie about love, commitment, intimacy and friendship and the host of maddening obstacles that can get in the way of a happy ending.” 

Writing from Johannesburg, a Christian Science Monitor correspondent reported, “Black friends who have seen this film have universally loved it.  Some white friends are amazed that a non-South African could enjoy such a film….  It sounds slight for Oscar voters, but charm can occasionally slide into the category.

The South African Movie Site

Trailers. 

Official site. 

 

Sri Lanka: "Akasa Kusum (Flowers of the Sky)"

The story of a faded Bollywood star forced to confront a secret from her past, director Prasanna Vithanage’s film was the first submission in this year’s foreign-film race. Judging by the trailer, it looks beautiful and more than a touch melodramatic; it’s reportedly very much a woman’s movie, which may not play well with the predominantly male Academy. Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror, though, calls it “one of the best films that contemporary Sri Lankan cinema has made.”

Official site.

Subtitled trailer.

 

Sweden: "Involuntary"

Structurally, “Involuntary” is one of the riskiest of this year’s entries: Variety describes it as “a dark comedy with five unconnected storylines, all with the common theme of people’s inability to stand up for others or what they believe in.” There’s an angry tour-bus driver, a pair of flirtatious teenage girls, a teacher disciplining a student … Much of the dialogue was reportedly improvised by a cast made up largely of unknowns and non-actors. The trailer makes the movie look as if it could be a lot of fun, but it doesn’t make it look much like an Oscar contender.

The film premiered at this year’s Cannes and won awards at several other festivals, but the trade reviews were mixed. Variety said, “The nature of group dynamics is explored in amusing if stinging fashion” and suggested that the “offbeat lensing style and quirky humor could make pic an attractive choice for fest programmers”; the Hollywood Reporter headlined its review “Pointless potpourri of stories of Swedes behaving badly.”

The trailer.

Switzerland: “Home”


The big winner at the 2009 Swiss Film Prizes, this French-language family drama was dubbed “a road movie sans travel” by Variety. Isabelle Huppert stars as the matriarch of a family fighting to stay in their home as a new expressway goes up nearby. “I wanted to mix tones and genres, jumping from a dramatic scene to another one that’s a bit more burlesque,” director Ursula Meier told Cineuropa. She also said she thinks of the central conceit – a road that brings the noisy, dirty world to the door of people who wanted to stay safely at home – as a metaphor for Switzerland.

A British reviewers for Channel 4 called the film “surreal” and concluded, “Meier’s increasingly unhinged vision is the very definition of unsettling.” Alan Diment added phrases like “imaginative and sinister” and “downright unnerving.” Oscar voters, be prepared.

Cineuropa interview with Meier.

A wonderful trailer, which doesn’t need English because it’s got Nina Simone.
 

Taiwan: "No puedo vivir sin ti"

 

Director Leon Dai reportedly fought against the idea that movies must have English titles to succeed internationally by giving his black-and-white drama a Spanish one. Chen Win-pin, who also produced and co-wrote the film, stars as a poor, uneducated laborer trying to keep custody of his seven-year-old daughter despite his trying circumstances. He battles bureaucracy and becomes desperate enough to attempt suicide in a standoff that opens the film.

There’s nary a false note in this simple story,” raved Love HK Film.com.  Asia Pacific Arts, from the UCLA Asia Institute, called it “a gigantic leap over Dai’s 2002 sex farce ‘Twenty Something Taipei,” and a film that “manages to be forcefully direct while dragging its feet through miles of strangeness.” Sounds like a mixture that could conceivably play well with voters.

Taiwan Travel and Culture Guide.

Taipei Times interview with director Leon Dai. 

The official site is in Japanese.

Thailand: “Best in Time”

From the looks of things a lighthearted, sentimental film about love and memory, director Yongyuth Torngkorngtun’s movie intertwines two stories. In one, a young man runs into his first love when she brings her dog into the clinic where he works; he pretends not to know her, and she genuinely doesn’t remember him. Two senior citizens, meanwhile, try to kindle a new romance against the wishes of her family. The small amount that’s been written about the film in English describe it as a romantic comedy, a feel-good movie – not normally what voters look for in this category, though a little heart can sometimes go a long way.

Thai Movie Blogs.

Official website (not in English).

Trailer: bouncy, pretty, perky, no subtitles.
 

 

Turkey: “Gunesi Gordum (I Saw the Sun)
”

Last year’s submission from Turkey, “Three Monkeys,” didn’t get a nomination – but it did make the Oscar shortlist of nine, where it was seen as a sign that the foreign-language selections were becoming more adventurous. This year’s selection, from writer-director Mahsun Kirmizigul, looks grander and less daring than its predecessor.

Set in a remote mountain village in Turkey, the film spans 25 years and deals with forced migration policies that push three families out of the homes they’ve known for generations. Two of the families travel to Istanbul and stay there; the third travels all the way to Norway. “It is a film that condemns all of discrimination or otherization,” says Kirmizigul, “and argues that war, fighting and contempt for anyone unlike oneself are the very problem itself.”

Official website.

Venezuela: “Libertador Morales, El Justiciero”

The director is Efterpi Charalambidis. Photos from the film show a scooter that’s been turned into a taxi. The movie appears to be about a Caracas taxi driver who by night becomes a crime fighter of some sort.

And beyond that … well, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure. Everything I could find about the film online is in Spanish, which I last took way too many years ago. But I love this description, translated by Yahoo Babel Fish: “Liberating Morals, the Justiciero a daily comedy produced by Villa of the Cinema, written and directed by Efterpi Charalambidis, will arrive at the screens next the 31 from July, with a cocktail of emotions that faces justice, loyalty, uprightness and romanticism in a single person for whom they dream about an urban hero in Caracas.”

Gran Cine’s description (in Spanish).

There’s some video about it here.