2001 Academy of Motion Picture foreign language film Oscar® competition

For the 22nd consecutive year, I've served on the Academy committee which nominates the five foreign film Oscar contenders.  Over the years I've seen the number of committee members and the audiences for the screenings increase dramatically.  Given the requirement that any country submitting a film must limit themselves to only one film (thus denying big quality film countries like France and Italy from being able to submit multiple deserving entries), my opinion is that this committee does a pretty fair job every year of choosing these films.  The voting procedure of the committee is that every member rates each film seen on an integer scale from 6 to 10.  Given that the Academy is loathe to allow its members to indicate their votes, I'm not going to hint at my numeric vote on each of these films, just rate the film generally on the same four star basis that I apply to my festival films.  This year I watched 50 of the 51 films sent to the Academy, although not all of them at the official committee screenings (I'd already seen 8 at other screenings or at festivals.)

Australia:  LA SPAGNOLA (d. Steve Jacobs)
This is an earthy, girl's-coming-of-age film set among the Spanish and Italian working class immigrants in the scrub brush, oil producing countryside of Western Australia in the early '60s.  The performances were fine, although a little broadly played.  Fairly amusing; but it doesn't have a chance in a million of making the finals.
Interestingly enough, it was 20% in English, 70% in Spanish, 10% in Italian (the lead, Lola Marceli, who played the mother, spoke exclusively in Spanish.  She is quite attractive, reminded me of Monica Bellucci who played Malèna last year.)  ** 1/2

Bosnia & Herzegovina:   NO MAN'S LAND (d. Danis Tanovic)
Already seen at the AFI fest.  My comments then: Probably my favorite film of the festival.  This one has a great script about an incident in the Bosnian war.  It is anti-war, but not doctrinairely so...drenched with irony, but not heavy handed.  It also won the most popular film prize at the festival, a well deserved award.      .  *** 3/4

Taiwan:  THE CABBIE (Yun zhuan shou zhi lian) (d. Yiwen Chen and Huakun Zhang)
I'm surprised that Taiwan submitted this film, although I can imagine that it was a box-office smash in its own country.  It actually was a well crafted family comedy...the sort of thing that the Chinese usually do very well if the director is Ang Lee, Edward Yang, or Ming-liang Tsai.  In this case, the story was somewhat inane (boy tries to impress and woo cute traffic police girl by driving his cab illegally to get ticketed by her).  It also had a really weird ending which undercut the entire movie.  No chance at a nomination despite the well observed humorous touches in the film.   It almost works...especially because the technical aspects were so well done:  great photography and some good writing.  I'm almost going to talk myself into liking this film in retrospect.  ** 1/2

Croatia:  QUEEN OF THE NIGHT (Kraljica noci) (d. Branco Schmidt)
The Croatian film was an even worse disaster.  I had high hopes for the film...a nostalgic teen age comedy about life in a beach resort during Tito's era before the Balkan wars.  The problem was that the episodes were inane (e.g. boys beating off watching through a window as the town prostitute plies her trade, and then they fall into the river).  The direction was also incompetent (rare in Croatian films)...bad transitions, flat mis en scène.  Very disappointing.  * 1/2

Belgium:  PAULINE & PAULETTE (d. Lieven Debrauwer)
Hi-jinx among four elderly sisters, three of them spinsters (one of them mentally challenged from birth and being cared for by the eldest).    But I rather liked this film, which was a riot of campy colors and ranged from comedy to pathos.  It tread a fine line between treacle and genuine human interest and stayed just on the right side of that line, at least for me.  I saw it at a festival, and not the official screening, so I can't say how this audience took to the film.  ** 3/4

Tanzania:  MAANGAMIZI (d. Martin Mhando and Ron Mulvihill)
I wish that I could inform my readers that Tanzania pulled off a miracle and sent a film which astounded the Academy and will get a surprise nomination.  Alas...this was another room-emptying film...although to be fair it was actually a pretty good film...just not the Academy's cup of tea.  Beautifully photographed among other technically competent credits. One of the problems is that with an American protagonist (a psychiatrist who returned to her roots in Africa), almost 50% of  the
dialog was in English...and the acting was pretty poor when one could understand the language.  In the parts of the film shot in the native tongue, the acting seemed to  improve greatly.  Last year Little Senegal more or less pulled off this kind of trick (I'd think it even almost made the top 5).  But this film certainly didn't. The story was some mumbo jumbo about ancestors and dreamscapes helping to cure a catatonic woman in a mental asylum who had witnessed her fundamentalist Christian father murder her pagan mother by burning her up when she was a young child.  No chance.  **

Albania:  SLOGANS (d. Gjergi Xhuvani)
This was a political film, but better than most such foreign films, since the people story was strong and the politics were clear enough to be understandable to an audience of a different culture.  It's the story of a teacher in a rural village in the '70s, when Albania was incredibly doctrinaire and pro-China and anti-Soviet.  All the teachers' classes had to construct slogans out of rocks on a hillside...and the slogan with the least letters, being easier to construct, was an indication of how high the teacher ranked in the pecking order of the party committee approval.  It's a gentle satire, and quite an affecting movie, although I don't think it made enough of an impact to make it to the final 5.  *** 1/4

Denmark:  ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS (Italiensk for begyndere) (d. Lone Sherfig)
A Dogme95 film about a group of Danes who interact while studying spoken Italian.  It looked better than most of these films; and the script develops nicely.  It plays a little like farce, a lot like a canny story of alienated people searching for love.  Actually it plays much better than that.  I didn't see the official screening; but word of mouth is that it was very successful with the Academy audience.  *** 1/4

Spain:  MAD LOVE aka JUANA LA LOCA d. Vicente Aranda)
Fabulously well acted period costume drama about Mad Queen Joan, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and her "mad love" for her husband, Philip the Handsome (who was hot, believe me).  For me, one of the high points was the presence in a relatively minor role of one of my favorite actors, Eloy Azorin.  He played the son in All About My Mother and the lead in a Spanish film called Kisses for Everyone, which was one of my favorite films at the Seattle film festival last
year.  I'm so shallow that I can love a film simply because it has an actor I'm totally attracted to.  But this film had a lot more going for it.  The actress who played Joan, Pilar Lopez de Ayala, was superb.  It should be a nominee, in my opinion; but in this field I'm afraid it is going to get overlooked.  *** 3/4

Japan:  GO (d. Isao Yukisada)
Why do the Japanese, who have one of the world's great cinemas, so rarely get nominated?  They don't have a very good take on the Academy committee's mind-set.  They consistently send movies which turn off the committee.  Go is a perfect example (as was Princess Monogartari, and other Anime films submitted in the past few years.)  This was a wonderful movie, actually; but slanted more for a youthful audience, I think.  It was a coming of age story about a rebellious Japanese/Korean (thus heavily socially stigmatized in Japanese culture) youth who is fighting both his family and society.  Made with an exciting directoral touch (fast cuts, innovative set-ups, sort of like Run Lola Run).  It is deserving of a nomination, but has no chance just like Lola didn't...this committee just can't appreciate this sort of youth oriented film. *** 1/4

France:  AMÉLIE (d. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
I'd already seen it, so I skipped the official screening..  I loved it the first time I saw it; but its super cutesy scenario hasn't worn well in my mind, even though I think Mathieu Kassovitz was particularly wonderful as usual, and Jeunet's visual flair bowled me over.   I don't now think it is one of the best pictures of the year, which was my immediate reaction back in November.  I have a sneaking hunch that the film isn't going to go over well enough with this committee to make the final 5, even though that is going to be an international surprise.  On the other hand, it is a good test as to whether the Miramax machine can work on this committee as well as it does with the Academy as a whole.  *** 1/4

Thiland:  THE MOONHUNTER (14 tula, songkram prachachon) (d. Bhandit Rittakol)
Why did Thailand send this movie?  I saw much better Thai films at festivals this past year.   I walked out on this one after about 1 1/4 hour of boredom, my only walk-out of this competition.  It's the story of a rebellious communist student agitator who becomes a guerilla fighter in the late '70s.  The film gets bogged down by boring politics, all about the internecine arguments between the Laotian/Vietnamese and Chinese factions of the party, a type of politics which doesn't travel well..  Nicely photographed, though.   If I had cared about the characters the film might have worked; but the main character is unsympathetic and I just couldn't get engaged.  *

Uruguay:  IN THIS TRICKY LIFE (En la puta vida) (d. Biatriz Flora Silva)
This is the story of a White Slavery ring where Uruguayan whores are shipped off to Spain and ruthlessly exploited.  The leading lady was luminous...really quite wonderful.  The tone of the film shifted between Almodovar like camp, shameless melodrama, and trenchant social commentary.  I think the audience enjoyed it;  but the film was simply not of high enough quality to break through for a nomination.  ** 1/2

Iceland:  THE SEAGULL'S LAUGHTER (Mávahlátur) (d. Agust Gudmundsson)
I usually love Icelandic films...year after year they're among my favorites.  But this one seemed somewhat pointless (though, to be fair the audience gave it a huge applause at the end, although I'm not sure why).  Maybe it just wasn't my cup of tea...directed by a woman and about a family of women post-WWII.  The main character is a possible Black Widow, who returns to Iceland after her American serviceman husband has died, and gets involved with other men, most of whom also
die during the film.  The film is presented through the pov of her teen-age girl cousin, who has adolescent issues of her own.  It was reasonably well made and acted; but I couldn't get engaged because none of the characters really interested me, though I should admit that I was fatigued going into the screening.  ** 1/2

Bulgaria:  FATE AS A RAT (Sudbata kato pluh) (d. Ivan Pavlov)
This is a rather boring and forgettable movie about the first stirrings of capitalism in Bulgaria...in the late '80s when a seaside resort is about to be built and the townspeople are all conspiring to try to make money out of it.  Honestly, except for some nice imagery and a few metaphorical shots of rats escaping a sinking boat, there's nothing to it.  One gets a feeling for the people of the village and the times; but the absurdist way the story is told just went over all our heads.  I'm sure there were plenty of walkouts.  * 1/2

Portugal:  CAMARATE (d. Luis Filipe Rocha)
This was a highly satisfying intellectual thriller based on speculation about an historical and apparently possible assassination by plane crash of the prime minister of Portugal in the late '70s.  It's done from the point of view of a female judge in the current day, who is charged with deciding whether or not to reopen the case, which remains, even years later, a politically dangerous  minefield.   Her investigation leads to her suspicion that the  Warren Commission like entity charged originally to investigate the incident probably swept the whole thing under the rug, declaring that the crash was an accident despite overwhelming (but suppressed) evidence to the contrary.  It's sort of as if Oliver Stone and Costa Gavras had gotten together to make a Portugese conspiracy film.  It was slow, but despite its obscure politics, it always remained interesting to me.  It doesn't have a chance for a nomination; but it is one of the pleasant surprises which makes this competition so wonderful every year.  *** 1/4

Norway:  ELLING (d. Petter Naess)
This was a very successful character based comedy about the unlikely pairing of two recently released inhabitants of a mental care facility, one an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe, and the other a possibly violent social misfit.  The story is about how they help each other to regain entry into society.  It's simply a fine script, well directed and acted, without a hint of flash but strong on human interest.  My impression was that the Academy ate it up, and it is an almost certain nominee.  *** 1/2

Czech Republic:  DARK BLUE WORLD (Tmavomodrý svet) (d. Jan Sverák)
I'd already seen Dark Blue World, so I didn't stick around to see it again.  I loved it when I saw it...the young, attractive lead is probably a genuine movie star.  It is very much like a big Hollywood movie, only made on a much tighter budget, although it doesn't look it.  I always hesitate to recommend movies where one of the bases of my enjoyment was lust for the leading man...but this one is a highly enjoyable movie which ought to be in the running for the final 5 but may not have the oomph with this committee to make it.  *** 1/4

Italy:  THE SON'S ROOM (La stanza del figlio) (d. Nanni Moretti)
This story of a psychiatrist's family torn apart by grief (a plot device similar to this year's American films In the Bedroom and The Monster's Ball, interesting how subjects seem to become faddish in the movie world)  will definitely finish high up with this committee.  Whether it has that extra Oscar bait to make it to the finals is open to question.  It's definitely the most approachable Cannes winner in ages.  I found it immensely moving and poignant...and intelligent, too.  I've never seen any of Moretti's movies, but I'm looking forward to an eventual retrospective.  One of my personal favorites of the competition.  *** 3/4

Turkey:  BÜYÜK ADAM KÜÇÜK ASK (d.  Handan Ipekçi)
A cute little Kurdish orphan girl befriends and is adopted by a retired old man, a former judge.  Very much like Kolya or other cute kids movies which have been nominated in the past.  The political angle of the Kurdish peoples' cultural exclusion give it an extra nudge of interest.  But I don't think this is the year that this one can break through.  The little girl was cute enough; but the story wasn't quite involving enough.  ** 3/4

Poland:  QUO VADIS (d. Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Costume historical epic based on a Polish novel (and made years ago into a classic, campy Hollywood toga spectacular).  It was well done in a Sparticus sort of way,  i.e. high production values, though the story suffered from the coldness and heartlessness of the main characters and some eye rolling early Christian propaganda.  The scene where the Christians were fed to the lions was one of the highlights of the year, the dismembered gore made Gladiator look like a country picnic.   Some liked the film...I was very lukewarm, though the guy who played Marcus was rather hot.   It was too long; but it still held my interest.  ** 3/4

Hong Kong:  FULLTIME KILLER (Chuen jik sat sau) (d. Johnnie To and Wie Ka-Fai)
The story of two young hired assassins, one the "best" the other aspiring to beat the best.  Hong Kong genre films are not usually my preference anyway, unless they're done by a master filmmaker.  This one wasn't.  Anyway, the story was confusing, the characters never gelled.  I'm surprised that it has any good rep at all.
* 3/4

Finland:  THE RIVER (Joki) (d. Jarmo Lampela)
This one wondered all over the place since it had a diffuse cast and tried to tell a whole bunch of stories about a little Finnish town and its inhabitants.  It starts out with an attempted suicide followed by a hot little gay scene and then drops the gay story immediately, never to go back.  The acting and screenwriting was good enough, and the film was well enough directed to make it worth the journey.  But ultimately it lacked enough impact to go anywhere.  ** 1/2

Slovenia:  BREAD AND MILK (Kruh in mleko) (d. Jan Cvitkovic)
Missed it.  Unfortunately had to work late that night.  However, I got a chance to catch the Argentine half of the double bill  at a later studio screening.

Argentina:  SON OF THE BRIDE (El hijo de la novia) (d. Juan José Campanella)
This one has it all, though it flags a little in the second act.  It certainly has the best acting job of the entire group:  Norma Aleandro playing a woman with Alzheimer's (another trendy topic this year) and cutting Judi Dench off at the knees when it comes to acting out that syndrome.  It's a family story with two compelling stories going on simultaneously, elderly retired father who wants to officially marry his Alzheimer stricken wife in the church, and type-A 40ish son in mid-life crisis after a heart attack.  It will get a release and I think may break out and be a well reviewed and watched movie.  I didn't see it at the official screening, so I'm not entirely sure of the Academy committee's  response; but I'm pretty sure this will be a nominee...it presses all the right buttons.  *** 1/2

Georgia:  THE MIGRATION OF THE ANGEL (Angelozis gadaprena) (d. Nodar Managadze)
Political metaphor tripe, which might mean something to Georgians...but is completely incomprehensible to Americans.  The film takes place in an underground train station, maybe after the Soviet era (which would make it a commentary on the difficulty of "freedom") and makes no sense at all.  Practically nobody was left in the theater by the end of the film.  I wish I had left.  1/2*

Philippines:  IN THE BOSOM OF THE ENEMY (Gatas...Sa dibdib ng kaaway) (d. Gil Portes)
The director is gay, and the film had a gay sensibility (the two leading men were *gorgeous*!); but the story was straight in content.  Actually, I rather enjoyed this film...maybe more for the gay subtext than anything else.  It's the story of a woman during WWII who has a baby daughter and whose husband has been picked up by the Japanese occupation troops and tortured (oh, so picturesquely) as a traitor.  The Japanese commander (the most beautiful Japanese man I've ever
seen...I think he might have a little Eurasian) has a Philippine wife who dies in childbirth.  Our heroine goes to the commander begging for her husband's life...and falls in love with the Japanese major (who in turn needs a substitute mother for his little baby).  It's a sappy romance...but the filmmaking was super slick and the story actually was extremely involving.  At least for me.  It won't go anyplace with the Academy; but I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I expected to.  ***

Mexico:  PERFUME DE VIOLETAS, NADIE TE OYE (d. Marisa Sistach)
A real sleeper.  This one actually has a slight chance for a nomination.  It definitely has the best final scene of the year, a tour de force which resonates and lifts the entire film.  It's about a poor young high school age girl, down on her luck, who gets pimped out by her half-brother (and degradingly raped by one of his friends) and has no luck at all.  She befriends another girl who has a lot of advantages (nice mother, nice lifestyle) and she is jealous of her friend.  It sounds dubious; but the acting is good and the film is *very* involving.  It probably won't make the final 5; but definitely is in the running.  ***

Israel:   LATE MARRIAGE (Hatuna Meuheret) (d. Dover Koshashvili)
It's one of my personal favorites...maybe because the male star (whose character is a creepy wimp) was so attractive to me.  It also has the best sex scenes of the year.  It's the story of a Georgian Jewish family, the kind that has years of tradition of arranged marriages and has carried that tradition to Israel with them.  The guy is 31, unmarried, and an embarrassment to his family. He's actually having a torrid affair with an older (34) lady with a cute daughter...but that would be totally unacceptable to his tigress of a mother (who has all the power).  The film is filled with great scenes...unfortunately, I don't think it went over with the Academy
audience as well as it did with me.  Too bad.  *** 1/2

Germany:  THE EXPERIMENT (Das Experiment) (d. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
This is a superior thriller about a (more or less) true experiment into prisoner and guard psychology which happened At Stanford in the '70s and which was adapted to the far more interesting and resonating terrain of modern Germany.  An excellent film, well written and shot.  It does go off  the rail into unlikeliness at the end, though.   Other than that, it is an almost perfect gem of a film.  I originally saw it at a festival; and I didn't watch it again.  When I arrived at the theater after its screening I heard a lot of griping by some of the audience that it was horrible and too violent, etc.  It's one of those controversial films which split an audience...so it doesn't have a chance for a nomination; but it is still a gripping and involving film.  *** 1/2

Russia:  ROMANOVS: AN IMPERIAL FAMILY (d. Gleb Panfilov)
A costume historical drama which delivers the goods!  It's an absolutely captivating and fascinating portrayal of the last year in the lives of the Imperial family...well acted and directed (especially the kid who plays the Tsarovich Alexei, who was heartbreakingly good...Haley Joel Osment good.)  But I don't think it had the impact on the Academy to break through and get to the final five.  *** 1/2

Algeria:  INCH'ALLAH DIMANCHE (d. Yamina Benguigui)
A "people" story which works, up to a point.  About an Algerian immigrant who brings his family over to France...told from the point of view of the wife who arrives with her overbearing mother-in-law and three kids and can't adjust to life in France.  It has comic moments and some really touching moments.  One of those
better-than-average films which are festival finds; but it doesn't have a chance here.  ** 3/4

Netherlands:  NYNKE (d. Pieter Verhoeff)
This is the apparently true-life story of a somewhat liberated woman author in a time and place (early 20th century Netherlands) where liberated women got nowhere. The film looked great, with particularly nice cinematography and costumes - altogether a rich evocation of the past.   And I suppose the acting was good.  But the film failed to engage me.   I found the main character annoying rather than interesting; and the film a pallid Masterpiece Theater piece.   Others disagreed.   **

United Kingdom:  DO NOT GO GENTLE (Oed Yr Addewid) (d.  Emlyn Williams)
This one is another Alzheimer's story (a faddishly popular subject in current cinema).  At the start, it seems to be the story of  an old man whose protective wife dies; who has to be placed in a nursing home by his three variously dysfunctional kids (each of whom have stories of their own).  But the story develops in surprising ways.  It's well done, the acting and direction were top flight and the story was interesting...but it didn't entirely work for me.  I just didn't get emotionally involved enough to care enough.  Still, it's a well made film with very strong acting.  ***

Columbia:  OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS (La virgen de los sicarios) (d. Barbet Schroeder)
Not the Academy's fare, I'm afraid;  nevertheless a gay film of rare quality.  The film is actually a remarkable achievement, considering that it was entirely shot in Medellin, Columbia, one of the most dangerous places on earth for a foreigner (murders, kidnapping for ransom, this is an evil, lawless place.)  It's about an urbane gentleman of a certain age who has spent most of his life in Europe and now returns to his roots in Medellin to die.  He is gay, and gets fixed up by a friend with a young teen-age boy assassin-prostitute.  They fall in love amidst the most terrifying of environments.  I'm not going to hint at the rest of the story; it is both moving and remarkable for its unsparing non-PCness.  The naturalistic acting by the young non-actors is so good that it lights up the screen.  This HD digital film, while not of the best digital quality I've seen recently, is beautifully photographed under trying circumstances.   An amazingly effective movie:  *** 1/2

Puerto Rico:  12 HOURS (12 horas) (d. Raul Marchand Sanchez)
A melodrama about a 12 hour shift of an elderly cabbie (yup, another cabbie movie!)  But mostly about three giddy working girls and their night on the town.  There's a germ of a good movie here; but it was ruined by egregious overacting, underwhelming direction, and a silly hole-filled plot featuring a number of unlikely occurrences for one long evening.  * 1/2.

Switzerland:  IN PRAISE OF LOVE (Éloge de l'amour) (d. Jean-Luc Goddard)
Yes, this is Jean-Luc Godard.   Yes, like all of his other films that I've seen in the 34 years since Weekend, this one is boring beyond belief.  It emptied the theater...but I stuck it out to the bitter end, even though I wasn't comprehending anything going on.  Something about the casting of an anti-American movie (shot in B&W film) and the episode which preceded it two years earlier (horribly shot in color digital).  If it had anything to do with "love" I couldn't figure out what it was.  So I'm an idiot.  But Godard does absolutely nothing for me.   0*

Iran:  BARAN (d. Majid Majidi)
It's a strong and heartfelt movie.  I'm not sure what the audience reaction was since I didn't attend the screening, having seen the movie earlier upon release.  It is the very approachable and timely account of a female Afghani refugee in Iran pretending to be a man and trying to work a construction job, until fired for incompetence.  It  probably did not make enough of an impact to make the final 5; but I'm not entirely counting it out.  ***

Estonia:  THE HEART OF THE BEAR (Karu süda) (d. Arvo Iho)
Another of my personal favorites...but such a strange film that I don't think it is going anywhere with this audience.  The main character, who is a sable hunter in modern Siberia, is HOT HOT HOT!  What can I say?  The movie can be crap; but if the leading man is that hot (and the film doesn't suck) I lose all objectivity.  Its semi-mystical story line (the guy gets a native woman and a female bear a little confused with each other) is going to be off-putting to some.  And in truth there are strange disconnections in the storyline.  But I was entranced.  Great photography...it makes Siberia look like a wonderful tourist attraction!   *** 1/4

India:  LAGAAN (d. Ashutosh Gowariker)
A huge, lush historical Bollywood musical about a famous cricket match between the oppressed Indians and the British Raj in the late 19th Century.  It had a very successful screening with lots of applause (and few if any walkouts, even for a 4 hour film).  It was a little too gung ho for my cynical soul...but I think it is the type of movie that the committee could possibly go for.  I heard a lot of good buzz about it afterwards, although at the intermission the sentiment wasn't as high.  The second half of the film was pretty great, even the musical numbers worked...especially a scene where all the characters are connected in a musical montage which would have made Stephen Sondheim, Baz Luhrmann and Buzby Berkeley jealous.  Incredible production values:  scope, great sound and music.  I was impressed, despite my reservations about Indian musicals. ***, but only because the 1st half was weak.  Cut out an hour and most of the musical stuff and this becomes a  *** 3/4. masterpiece.

Canada:  ATANARJUAT (d. Zacharias Kunuk)
Um, I think this one is going to be a nominee.  It got three rounds of applause after the screening.  It is the story of an Eskimo village over two generations, and the passions and vicissitudes the people go through in their vast Arctic wilderness.   Very realistic, almost documentary-like (as if Robert Flaherty had made a modern fiction film).  It is the type of movie which gets to people.  It's so unlikely a choice and so completely the opposite of Hollywood, that choosing it is definitely going to be the politically correct thing to do (my theory only.)  One of the best parts of the film is the end credits, where actual scenes from the "making of" the film are shown.  Turns out the utterly naturalistic look and feel of the film was the result of very careful and skilled filmmaking.  *** 1/2

Kyrgyzstan:  THE CHIMP (Maimal) (d. Aktan Abdykalykov)
A nice, innocuous movie about a group of young teenagers in Kyrgyzstan...one of whom (who is called Chimp because he has big ears) is going into the army.  It is a coming of age film, sort of a gentle Racing With the Moon.   All atmosphere with not much substance.  The acting was pretty amateur, and the film stands no chance for a nomination.  ** 1/4

Brazil:  BEHIND THE SUN (Abril Despedaçado) (d. Walter Salles)
Family feud in rural Brazil in 1910, where the young people are set to kill each other off in endless rounds of vengeance for reasons lost in time.  Not enough oomph (sort of like last year's Brazilian film Me You Them, nicely acted and directed, but lacking somehow).  The actor playing the middle son was quite a dish (my dirty old man syndrome is shining through in these commentaries, isn't it?)  ** 3/4

Chile:  A CAB FOR THREE (Taxi para tres) (d. Orlando Lübbert)
This one is another cab driver movie, a trend this year, and not a good one considering the mediocre quality of the films.  In this one, the cabbie is originally kidnapped by a pair of desperadoes and forced to aid them in a petty robbery crime spree.  Then he gets into the monetary advantages of it and continues with them in escalating capers at the risk of his family.  Not a particularly well made film, badly overacted and uninterestingly shot.  **

Hungary:  ABANDONED (Torzók) (d. Arpad Sopsits)
The story of a cute boy, a little Keane waif, abandoned by his father in an orphanage/reform school sometime in the Communist era.  It was very political and seemed realistic in terms of the students and teachers.  This one was one of my personal favorites...but it was 'way too somber and too much a downer for this group.  Very nice direction and great, if dark and somber, photography.  I was moved by the boy's and his teacher's plight.  *** 1/4

Sweden:  JALLA! JALLA! (d. Josef Fares)
It won't be a finalist...but this is a wonderful little romantic comedy farce about a young Lebanese guy whose family is trying to arrange a suitable marriage and who is in love with a forbidden Swedish girl (another repeated theme this year, reminiscent of the Israeli film), and his Swedish best friend who is having trouble getting it up with his own girlfriend.  I found it delightful, funny and well observed;  and one can't entirely count it out.  *** 1/4

Armenia:  SYMPHONY OF SILENCE (d. Vigen Chaldranyan)
Another good movie, just not good enough to shine this year.  It's the complex and sometimes surreal story of an Armenian tough guy whose back story was that 20 years earlier he had escaped from an Armenian mental hospital (where he faked insanity in order to be admitted as a ruse to escape the secret police), and then fled to the US with 3000 ill-gotten diamonds.  In the present day, he returns home fabulously rich, buys the mental hospital at a privatization auction, and gets involved with the patients and staff, doing good deeds in expiation of his former life, which eventually catches up to him.  Very interesting script and directoral style. ***

Yugoslavia:  WAR LIVE (Rat uzivo) (d. Darko Bajic)
This one is a weird farce about a Serbian movie crew shooting a film with an American lead actor during the American bombing of Belgrade in 1999.  The film was filled with strange anti-American jibes; but this audience seemed to take the anti-Americanism and all the funny moviemaking in-jokes with massive good will.  The script was messy and the acting too broad for my taste.  But the film seemed to work for most of the audience.  Zero chance at a nomination, however.  **

Austria:  THE PIANO TEACHER (La pianiste) (d. Michael Haneke)
Scandalously, this great film with 3 major French stars, shot in French, was sent to the Academy dubbed into German with different actors doing the voices.  I've never seen this done in all the 22 years I've been doing the Academy foreign films.  If this were common, then one might as well take a film shot in English, dubb it
into a foreign language, and then send it to this competition as a foreign language film!  It doesn't matter, though.  The film is so hard-core s&m and so hard to take that few in this audience loved it as much as I did.  Benoit Magimel is one of my favorite actors in the world...I'd pay to see him read the phone book he's so attractive. And Isabelle Hupert was spectacular (though it's hard to tell since it wasn't her real voice.)  All in all the closest this competition has come to an authentic masterpiece; but certainly not for this audience, who stuck around out of respect for the filmmaking, but failed to indicate appreciation for this difficult movie by giving it more than cursory applause.   *** 3/4

Venezuela:  A HOUSE WITH A VIEW OF THE SEA (Una casa con vista al mar) (d. Alberto Arvelo Mendoza)
A moody film about a poor rural Andean farming family in 1948, father and 12 year old son, and the blood feud that develops when the son is picked on by the son of the neighboring rich landowner.  If this reminds you of the Brazilian film, then it's true.  Films seem to come in cycles.  This year it was South American feuds and taxicab drivers.  The photography was spectacular, but somewhat overwrought as was the music and writing.  The kid actor was quite beautiful, but not particularly good as an actor...all the acting was pretty amateur.  The film was diverting, but not much more to be said.  ** 1/2

Greece:  IN GOOD COMPANY (Enas & enas) (d. Nikos Zapatinas)
I wanted to quit after a half an hour.  It's a silly, almost slap-stick comedy about a criminal and a lunatic who are out and about being watched by the corrupt cops (waiting for the criminal to fetch the loot) and the psychiatrists who are making a documentary about the crazy one.  Comedy is a fragile thing, and this one was remarkably unfunny to my eyes.  The two lead actors were like a Greek Laurel and Hardy pair, only not nearly as good.   * 1/2

If I were to guess the five nominees as of today, February 6, 2002 (6 days ahead of the actual announcement), I'd go with these, in the order of my certainty:


Yes, I know that Amélie is an odds on favorite to make the final five.  It has the power of the Miramax machine going for it.  Yet, I'm going out on a limb and saying that this committee is going to reject it.  I've heard more good buzz from other committee members about the Danish film, Italian for Beginners,  than any other movie.   I wasn't at the screening so I can't say...it did impressed me as a superior Dogme 95 film; but I must say that I'm surprised by my committee friends'  adulatory response to this film. 

Update  written after the nominations:  Of course I was off a bit.  The final five nominees included Elling from Norway, Son of the Bride from Argentina and No Man's Land from Bosnia as I predicted.   But the Academy rejected the Canadian film, The Fast Runner,  in favor of the more obvious production values of the Indian film, Lagaan.  Frankly this didn't surprise me much, as you'd have seen if you read my review of the film.  And the committee did fall for the treacle of Amélie; which certainly wasn't  a surprise,  but a little disappointing anyway.    I was extremely gratified that No Man's Land was the eventual winner, as it certainly was one of my favorites of the year, and the film I actually voted for the Oscar.  

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