What Variety Said: The adventures of a 10-year-old Laotian boy are subject to radically different interpretations in “The Rocket,” Australian documentarian Kim Mordaunt’s impressive narrative debut. In a country where multinational interests are reshaping the landscape to suit their corporate needs, displaced villagers seek more familiar scapegoats to embody their misfortune — singling out, for instance, the film’s pint-size hero, Ahlo, whose scrappy determination propels the action. A kid-centric slice of intractable humanism in the mode of “The Kite Runner,” “Tsotsi,” “Whale Rider” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” this “Rocket” could launch globally.
Austria. Directed by Julian Polsler (German)
What Variety Said: A tale of a femme Robinson Crusoe with evergreens instead of palms and mountain peaks instead of sandy beaches, “The Wall” reps another showcase for the mesmerizing face of thesp Martina Gedeck. Austrian TV vet Julian Roman Poelsler imbues his widescreen adaptation of the Marlen Haushofer novel with a certain visual majesty, but since the protag is always alone, the film relies exclusively on voiceover to suggest her thoughts, inadvertently turning it into something akin to a well-illustrated audiobook. Beyond German-speaking areas, this will be a hard sell.
Brazil. Directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho (Portuguese).
What Variety Said: From the opening credits of “Neighboring Sounds,” when the usual end-roll cast list appears before the first scene, auds know Kleber Mendonca Filho is looking to upend expectations. Once the pic proper begins, it’s equally clear this exceptionally talented helmer understands exactly what he’s doing and why. Those familiar with his award-winning shorts will recognize certain themes and even scenes, but Filho hones his vision into a powerful yet subtle X-ray of contempo Brazilian society as seen on one upmarket street. Superbly constructed, skillfully acted and beautifully lensed, “Sounds” should have made a bigger noise at Rotterdam.
Canada. Directed by Louise Archambault (French).
What Variety Said:Two developmentally disabled members of a Montreal choir want to exert independence and consummate their love in Louise Archambault’s predictably sweet “Gabrielle.” Fitting into the solid market for well-made, uplifting stories about individuals with special needs fighting the odds and coming into their own, the pic can also be seen as a manipulative heart-tugger directed at self-satisfied audiences who enjoy rooting for those less fortunate than themselves. “Gabrielle” makes nice use of the expressive qualities of group singing, and Archambault generally avoids the Afterschool Special feel associated with such themes. Locarno’s public prize and healthy international sales presage popular embrace.
Chile. Directed by Sebastian Leilo (Spanish).
What Variety Said: A divorced woman in her late 50s recaptures her life in Sebastian Lelio’s pitch-perfect, terrifically written “Gloria.” Were this an American film, the situation of a middle-aged woman refusing to give in to loneliness would likely be fashioned into a comedy starring Meryl Streep or Maggie Smith, but Lelio refuses to adopt the industry’s ageist slant, presenting a woman (magnificently played by Paulina Garcia) of undisguised sexuality seeking to be the center of life for the man she loves. Perceptive and unerringly sympathetic, “Gloria” has the makings of an arthouse sleeper.
France. Directed by Gilles Bourdos (French)
What Variety Said: An arthritis-plagued father and his war-wounded son are both beguiled by beauty in “Renoir.” This lushly shot stroll through the twilight days of the impressionist painter Auguste and the early formative years of his filmmaking offspring, Jean, reps the strongest and most conventional feature to date from Gallic helmer Gilles Bourdos (“Afterwards”). Again teaming up with ace Taiwanese lenser Mark Lee Ping-bing and composer Alexandre Desplat, Bourdos should see his atmospheric, well-acted period piece appeal to older, art-savvy moviegoers everywhere.
Boy Eating the Bird’s Food
Greece. Directed by Ektoras Lygizos (Greek).
What Variety Said: A straightforward but pretty effective parable shot in smudgy wobblecam, “Boy Eating the Bird’s Food” isn’t part of the current Greek Weird Wave so much as it is a cinematic cri de coeur from a nation in physically and psychologically dire straits. Feature debut by theater helmer Ektoras Lygizos pursues the titular protag, who has a beautiful singing voice but is reduced to foraging for food or facing starvation. Pic should be highly in demand at fests committed to sociopolitically relevant fare, though an explicit scene of semen eating will make this a daring choice for theatrical release offshore.
Hungary. Directed by Janosz Szasz (Hungarian)
What Variety Said: “The Notebook” marks natural material for veteran stage and screen helmer Szasz, celebrated for grim, boldly expressive pics such as “Woyzech,” “The Witman Boys” and “Diary of an Opium Eater.” Despite the difficulty of rendering the singular tone of Agota Kristof’s literary prizewinner, Szasz and co-scripter Andras Szeker manage to capture its essence, creating a universally understandable parable about the inhumanity catalyzed by war and the division of postwar Europe.
Mexico. Directed by Amat Escalante (Spanish).
What Variety Said: “Open your eyes so you don’t miss the show,” instructs one character midway through “Heli,” shortly before a kidnapped man is beaten with an oversized paddle and stripped to the ankles, his genitals doused in alcohol and set merrily ablaze. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the title (and title character) invokes a certain place of eternal damnation in this nihilistic third feature by Carlos Reygadas acolyte Amat Escalante, who plunges us deep into Mexico’s vicious cycle of drug-fueled violence, with no end — or much of a discernable point — in sight. Destined to traumatize buyers and audiences in roughly equal measure, this accomplished but singularly unpleasant pic lends this year’s Cannes competition its first authentic whiff of scandal.
Horses of God
Morocco. Directed by Nabil Ayouch (Arabic).
What Variety Said: Four childhood friends from the slums are recruited by Islamic fundamentalists and turned into suicide bombers in Nabil Ayouch’s affecting, strongly edited “Horses of God.” Based on a 2003 bombing in Casablanca, the pic delves into a shantytown atmosphere of machismo, wounded pride and powerlessness, which collectively act as a petri dish for fanaticism. By spending considerable time on milieu and the friends as kids, Ayouch sets his film apart, delineating personalities that avoid the cookie-cutter repetition seen elsewhere. “Horses” will trot confidently into Euro arthouses.
The Netherlands. Directed by Alex Van Warmerdam (Dutch)
What Variety Said: If Michael Haneke had a slightly less ironic appreciation of the term “funny games,” he might have cooked up something a little like “Borgman,” a sly, insidious and intermittently hilarious domestic thriller that is likely to remain one of the most daring selections of this year’s Cannes competish. More disquieting than explicit, this eighth feature from Dutch writer-helmer Alex van Warmerdam, who also features memorably in the ensemble, strikes a familiar note in its allegorical punishment of the entitled upper classes, but the execution is sufficiently inventive to mark the pic as a challenge worth accepting for adventurous arthouse distribs.
I Am Yours
Norway. Directed by Iram Haq (Norwegian).
What Variety Said: “ ‘I am Yours’ is an impressive debut that touches and raises important questions about being a woman and man in a complex society; the committee sees it as very mature and universal film, a personal and authentic work created by a woman director, with a femalelead that carries the film’s expression to the full,” the committee said in selecting the film.
Lines of Wellington
Portugal. Directed by Valeria Sarmiento (Portuguese)
What Variety Said: When Raul Ruiz died last year, his widow, versatile helmer Valeria Sarmiento, took over his last project, the grandiose Napoleonic epic “Lines of Wellington.” Expectations were high, given Ruiz’s pre-production input and the participation of “Mysteries of Lisbon” scripter Carlos Saboga, along with d.p. Andre Szankowski, but alas, “Wellington” is stringy beef. Aiming for a Tolstoyan vibe that personalizes history’s great events, the pic is big, but not big enough; historical, but not exactly accurate; and the extra stuffing, which made “Mysteries” a treasure box of discoveries, here feels merely undigested.
Romania. Directed by Calin Peter Netzer (Romanian)
What Variety Said: Noted scripter Razvan Radulescu delivers his strongest screenplay for some time with “Child’s Pose,” Calin Peter Netzer’s dissection of monstrous motherly love. It’s also a razor-sharp jibe at Romania’s nouveau riche (the type is hardly confined to one country), a class adept at massaging truths and ensuring that the world steps aside when conflict arises. Sharp, multilayered dialogue and expectedly canny performances are strong enough to overcome the over-active, judgmental lensing. Though the English title lacks meaning, the pic should pose no problem finding room on fest bills and in Romanian showcases. International sales, however, will be limited.
Saudi Arabia. Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour (Arabic).
What Variety Said: Initially the biggest talking point about “Wadjda” will be that a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, has directed the first Saudi Arabian feature shot entirely within the kingdom. Once the novelty is processed, critics and the public will likely agree that the pic transcends mere surprise value and delivers a winning, handsomely crafted story with a charismatic lead guaranteed to charm international auds. Resembling kid-centered Iranian pics that tackle sticky topics via pint-sized protags, “Wadjda” uses a spunky girl to explore women’s limitations within Arabian society. A vigorous fest life is assured, followed by probable arthouse play.
UK. Directed by Sean Ellis (Tagalog).
What Variety Said: A naive farming couple from the picturesque but impoverished rice-growing region of Banaue, northern Philippines, come to grief in the crime-ridden capital in Brit helmer Sean Ellis’s polished Tagalog-language soap opera-cum-heist pic “Metro Manila.” Overlong, sometimes inventive, and with a self-indulgent tendency to exploit cliche as if it didn’t exist, the pic might be able to parlay its Sundance World Cinema audience award into wider international exposure.
Singapore. Directed by Anthony Chen (Mandarin, Hokkien, English, Tagalog).
What Variety Said: Brimming with love, humor and heartbreak, “Ilo Ilo” centers on the inseparable bond between a 10-year-old Singaporean boy and his Filipina nanny while the boy’s parents struggle to weather the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Debuting helmer Anthony Chen is remarkably astute in his depiction of the class and racial tensions within such a household, his accessible style enabling the characters’ underlying decency and warmth to emerge unforced. This small but immensely likable gem should find a cozy spot at fests as well as niche European distribution, following its Camera d’Or win at Cannes.
South Korea. Directed by Kang Yi-kwan (Korean)
What Variety Said: Bearing a superficial resemblance to Venice prizewinner “Pieta,” but actually more in sync with classic neorealism, South Korean family drama “Juvenile Offender” centers on 16-year-old Ji-gu (Seo Young-ju), who meets the mother who abandoned him for the first time as he exits a correctional facility for underage law-breakers. Simultaneously bleak and humanistic, writer-director Kang Yikwan’s intimate look at a national problem reveals the myriad ways bad decisions trickle down through generations, while offering a slim ray of hope for a clan awkwardly attempting to make amends. Though admirable, the emotionally restrained approach seems better suited to fests than to commercial play.
Eat Sleep Die
Sweden. Directed by Gabriela Pichler (Swedish, Croatian).
What Variety Said:
A hard-working Muslim girl in the Swedish sticks is made redundant in the well-meaning “Eat Sleep Die,” a handheld doodle from tyro helmer Gabriela Pichler. Though Montenegro-born newcomer Nermina Lukac is magnetic as the no-nonsense lead, Pichler, who also wrote and co-edited, struggles to forge an engaging narrative out of the sociorealist mini-tragedies that befall her ill-conceived characters, with the occasionally preachy tone and a contrived drama involving a driver’s license especially grating. Beyond the usual Scandi outlets, femme-centric and sociopolitical events might bite.
Bangladesh. Directed by Mostofa Sarwar Farooki (Bengali).
What Variety Said: Produced by Bangladeshi shingle Chabial with German co-producers, the film follows events on an island governed by an Islamist cleric who bans television, but who is challenged when the community’s lone Hindu family buys a TV set. In 2012, “Television” played at the Cinemanila fest in the Philippines, closed the Busan fest, and won a Muhr AsiaAfrica Special Mention at the Dubai fest. “The film has traveled around the world. On its way, it was well received by a varied audience. Now it is representing Bangladesh at the 86th Oscars. I hope a few Asian titles find place in the shortlist this year,” Farooki told Variety.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
Belgium. Directed by Felix van Groeningen (Flemish).
What Variety Said: Ups and downs are constantly juxtaposed in “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” a bluegrass-infused Flemish meller about two lovers who lose their little daughter to cancer. As in helmer Felix van Groeningen’s previous pic, “The Misfortunates,” sophisticated cutting brings out the story’s complex emotional undercurrents, though “Breakdown’s” less convincingly scripted second half sputters more often than it shines. A huge hit at home last fall, this crowdpleasing tearjerker with a terrific soundtrack sold widely after its festival bow in Berlin, where it scooped up the Panorama audience award and Europa Cinemas Label.
Color of the Chameleon
Bulgaria. Directed by Emil Hristov (Bulgarian).
What Variety Said: A darkly comic evocation of communist absurdities circa 1989, “The Color of the Chameleon” follows the fortunes of an amoral, almost Tom Ripley-esque opportunist and his initially state-decreed, later self-mandated adventures in surveillance. Based on scriptwriter Vladislav Todorov’s novel “Zincograph,” referenced within the film as a key underground text, this debut feature from Bulgarian helmer Emil Christov creates an alternate reality that juxtaposes Kafkaesque bureaucratic illogic with the murderous whimsy of an off-the-wall freelancer. Composed as a series of surreal shocks, this New Directors/New Films entry, rapidly changing tones alongside its fearlessly imitative hero, reps a dark horse for arthouse distribution.
Serbia. Directed by Srdan Golubovic (Serbian)
What Variety Said: The past comes back to haunt everyone in Srdan Golubovic’s “Circles,” an unorthodox morality tale about Serb-on-Serb crime in which concentric narratives make for considerable resonance. The ghosts of the Bosnian War have stalked Balkan film for nearly 20 years, and Golubovic’s take will leave specialty auds rattled — and perhaps hopeful, as the screenplay by Srdan Koljevic and Melina Pota Koljevic strains to end on an upbeat. Commercial prospects are limited, but viewers will be rewarded.
New Zealand. Directed by Dana Rotberg (Maori).
What Variety Said: “ ‘White Lies’ is a beautiful film with powerful themes and strong female characters, set in Maori culture,” said New Zealand Film Commission chief executive Graeme Mason. “We are incredibly proud that this is the second time that New Zealand has submitted a film for consideration for the foreign-language film category.”
Hong Kong. Directed by Wong Kar Wai (Mandarin)
What Variety Said: Venturing into fresh creative terrain without relinquishing his familiar themes and stylistic flourishes, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai exceeds expectations with “The Grandmaster,” fashioning a 1930s action saga into a refined piece of commercial filmmaking. Boasting one of the most propulsive yet ethereal realizations of authentic martial arts onscreen, as well as a merging of physicality and philosophy not attained in Chinese cinema since King Hu’s masterpieces, the hotly anticipated pic is sure to win new converts from the genre camp. Wong’s Eurocentric arthouse disciples, however, may not be completely in tune with the film’s more traditional storytelling and occasionally long-winded technical exposition.
Georgia. Directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross (Georgian).
What Variety Said: Georgia’s reputation as the latest cinematic hotspot for emerging talent is enhanced further by “In Bloom,” an absorbing, intelligently assembled coming-of-ager that revolves around two pubescent gal-pals growing up in 1992, just after independence was restored. Co-helmed by Georgian Nana Ekvtimishvili (also the scripter) and German Simon Gross, the pic feels indebted less to the likes of local luminaries Sergei Parajanov and Otar Iosseliani than to recent Romanian cinema, not least because of the involvement of ace d.p. Oleg Mutu (“Beyond the Hills”). As such, it’s a tiny bit derivative, but still has plenty of potential to travel.
Mother, I Love You
Latvia. Directed by Janis Nord (Latvian).
What Variety Said: Janis Nords’ movie, which is about a 12-year-old boy whose spiral of lies spins out of control, premiered at the Berlinale in Generation Kplus, and received the section’s main prize. It also won top prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Croatia. Directed by Arsen Anton Ostojić (Bosnian)
What Variety Said: A special jury prize of $9,500 went to Croatian helmer Arsen Anton Ostojic for his “deep and emotionally captivating” film “Halima’s Path”. Ostojic’s third feature, which also won the audience award, tells the true story of a mixed Muslim-Christian marriage that has tragic consequences when civil war tears the Balkans apart in the 1990s.
Breach in the Silence
Venezuela. Directed by Luis Rodríguez and Andrés Rodríguez (Spanish)
What Variety Said: The best actress nod went to Venezuelan actress Vanessa Di Quattro for her perf as a deaf 19-year-old subjected to physical and emotional abuse in “Brecha en el silencio” (Breach in the Silence) by Venezuelan first-timers Luis and Andres Rodriguez. Pic, praised by the jury for “tearing off the mask of oppression,” also took the prize for best film by an emerging director.
Finland. Directed by Ulrika Bengts (Swedish)
What Variety Said: A newcomer’s arrival exposes and eventually implodes a lighthouse keeper’s tyrannical rule over his wife and children in “The Disciple.” Second feature from Finnish director Ulrika Bengts (following 2011′s “Iris,” likewise an island-set period family drama) effectively downplays familiar themes and narrative beats amid solid perts and handsome widescreen presentation. Though not distinctive enough to attract wide arthouse export, the pic (which debuts on home turf late this month) should win select offshore sales through further fest travel.
Germany. Directed by Georg Maas (German)
What Variety Said: The nine-person jury, under the chairmanship of Dagmar Hirtz, commented: “ ‘Two Lives’ convincingly portrays a strand of German history which is otherwise not very well known: the Norwegian ‘Lebensborn Children.’ The legacy of the Third Reich guiltily interlinks itself with the manipulation of the secret police of the GDR. The intensive interaction between Juliane Kohler and Liv Ullmann, and the expressive cinematography are impressive.”
Soongava: Dance of the Orchids
Nepal. Directed by Subarna Thapa (Nepalese)
What Variety Said: An aspiring dancer falls in love with her best femme friend in the deadly solemn “Soongava: Dance of the Orchids,” reportedly the first Nepali feature to deal with same-sex relationships (though the Himalayan nation has implemented some of Asia’s most gay-friendly legislation since 2007). Male scribe-helmer Subarna Thapa’s film benefits from nice dance sequences and exotically unfamiliar locales, but is otherwise a rather by-the-numbers coming-out narrative and, sadly, includes what feels like a prerequisite tragic ending.
Pakistan . Directed by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi (Punjabi and Urdu).
What Variety Said: “Zinda Bhaag” is an illegal immigration comedy drama where three young men try and escape the realities of their lives in Pakistan. It stars veteran Indian thesp Naseeruddin Shah alongside Pakistani actors Amna Ilyas and Khurram Patras. The film is Pakistan’s first entry to the Academy Awards after a 50-year absence. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Chair of Pakistan’s Academy Awards selection committee, said: “Pakistan will finally have a film in contention this year at the Academy Awards and I feel proud that today we are taking a small step towards recognizing our own filmmakers. “Zinda Bhaag” is proof of the fact that sheer will, passion and talent can achieve incredible feats, and I would like to congratulate the team behind the film on a compelling and cinematic film.”
Walesa. Man of Hope.
Poland. Directed by Andrzej Wajda (Polish)
What Variety Said: There’s something fitting about Andrzej Wajda bringing Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to life, just as it’s proper that he subtitles the film “Man of Hope.” For “Walesa. Man of Hope” is a natural companion piece to the great director’s landmark “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” his influential duo on resistance to communist oppression. With a bit of understandable triumphalism devoid of hagiography, Wajda tracks Walesa’s career from shipyard worker to Nobel Prize winner, crafting an old-fashioned (in the best sense), at times stirring biopic that masterfully integrates an exceptional range of contempo footage. Sales have been brisk, and Euro theatrical play will be strong.
15 Years Plus a Day
Spain. Directed by Gracia Querejeta (Spanish).
What Variety Said: Winning best film and screenplay at April’s Malaga Festival, Spain’s biggest nation cinema showcase, “15 Days” reprises Querejeta’s central concern of family dynamics played across generations, here the troubled relations between a mother, her unruly son and her father, an ex military man and strict disciplinarian who takes the boy in when he’s expelled from school.
South Africa. Directed by Ian Gabriel (Sabela, Tsotsi-taal and Cape Afrikaans)
What Variety Said: Directed by Ian Gabriel, “Four Corners” revolves around a 13-year-old chess whiz drawn into the Cape Town’s well-known child-gang culture. Touted as the first film to delve into the 100-year-old war between South Africa’s so-called Number gangs, the 26 and the 28, it blends the Sabela, Tsotsi-taal and Cape Afrikaans dialects and mixes established talents with non-actors and first-time thesps from schools and communities across the Cape Flats.
Philippines. Directed by Hannah Espia (Tagalog).
What Variety Said: The film is the feature debut of writer-director-editor Hannah Espia. It had its premiere at Cinemalaya, The Philippines’ acclaimed festival of indie film, where it won the best picture award. The Oscar selection was made by the Film Academy of the Philippines and a committee headed by Peque Gallaga. The committee admitted that “Transit” was a late contender as it only began its commercial release a week ago. Local reports say the committee votes were tied between three films – “Transit,” Erik Matti’s “On the Job” and Brillante Mendoza’s “Thy Womb” — requiring Gallaga to exercise a decisive vote.
Russia. Fedor Bondarchuk (Russian).
What Variety Said: The 3D World War II action film, which is distribbed worldwide by Sony, was shot on a $30 million budget. The film is lead produced by Alexander Rodnyansky, who is one of the producers of “Machete Kills.”
The Good Road
India. Directed by Gyan Correa (Gujarati).
What Variety Said: The Good Road” (pictured) is the debut feature of director Gyan Correa. Structured as a road movie, it follows three groups of people whose lives intersect as they travel along a bleak stretch of highway in western India. India’s National Film Development Corporation produced the film, which premiered in July at the London Indian Film Festival. It subsequently won the National Film Award for a Gujurati film.
Ukraine. Directed by Olena Fetisova and Serge Avedikian (Russian, Ukrainian)
What Variety Said: The award for a top Ukrainian film went to “Paradjanov,” directed by Serge Avedikian and Olena Fetisova. The pic, which is a Ukraine-France-Armenia-Georgia co-production, is a biopic of filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov, who came into conflict with the Soviet regime.
Thailand. Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya (Thai).
What Variety Said: Thailand has made the unusual choice of a psychological thriller “Countdown” as its contender for nomination in the Academy Awards’ foreign-language section. The film was directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya and released in December last year with an 18+ rating. The film is a black tale of three dope-smoking Thai teenagers who are holed up in an apartment in New York at New Year, when they are terrorized by a Bible-wielding drug dealer called Jesus (David Asavanond).
The Butterfly’s Dream
Turkey. Directed by Yilmaz Erdogan (Turkish)
Who’s the Boss?
Dominican Republic. Directed by Ronni Castillo (Spanish)
The Great Passage
Japan. Directed by Yuya Ishii (Japanese)
What Variety Said: Based on a best-selling novel by Shiwon Miura, “The Great Passage” has since been snapped up by other foreign fests, propelled by the “cult” label director Ishii earned from such high-profile dramadies as ”Sawako Decides” and “Mitsuko Delivers.” “The Great Passage,” is by comparison quieter, gentler and more mass audience friendly, finishing its long theatrical run just short the $10 million mark considered the measure of a commercial BO hit in Japan.
Luxembourg. Directed by Christophe Wagner (Luxembourgish, French).
Ace of Spades – Bad Destiny
Montenegro. Directed by Draska Djurovic (Serbo-Croatian)
Taiwan. Directed by Chung Mong-hong (Mandarin)
What Variety Said: A spiritual horror-thriller about a psychopath who claims demonic possession, Taiwanese helmer Chung Mong-hong’s “Soul” wavers between gory genre territory and arthouse ambitions, uneasily melding the mordant humor of 2008′s “Parking” with the thematic vagueness of 2010′s “The Fourth Portrait.” But supernatural musings and psychobabble aside, Chung’s unraveling of the twisted bond between a father and son is bone-chilling yet strangely moving. Essentially a festival item, the film will alienate audiences looking for straight answers with its distractingly beautiful lensing and eerie ambiguity, although action veteran Jimmy Wong’s performance might spur specialty Asian interest.
Argentina. Directed by Lucia Puenzo (Spanish, German, Hebrew).
What Variety Said: A plodding Argentine potboiler that examines the country’s history of harboring Nazis after WWII, “Wakolda” poses the question: What would you do if the dapper German doctor you invited into your home turned out to be Josef Mengele? That premise could be just juicy enough to earn writer-director Lucia Puenzo’s third feature a modest international audience, though she goes about the execution all wrong, leadenly reverse-engineering her plot from a reveal that the vast majority of audiences will know from the get-go. The fact that Puenzo (“XXY”) published “Wakolda” as a novel first could benefit awareness in some markets.
Estonia. Directed by Veiko Õunpuu (Estonian)
Iran. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. (French)
What Variety said: Asghar Farhadi may have left his native Iran to shoot a picture in Paris starring Berenice Bejo, but in all the ways that count, “The Past” couldn’t feel closer to home. Like 2011′s Oscar-winning “A Separation,” this is an exquisitely sculpted family melodrama in which the end of a marriage is merely the beginning of something else, an indelible tapestry of carefully engineered revelations and deeper human truths. If Farhadi’s sense of narrative construction is almost too incisive at times, costing the drama some focus and credibility in the final reels, he nonetheless maintains a microscopic attention to character, performance and theme that will make this powerfully acted picture a very classy specialty-division prospect.
Israel. Directed by Yuval Adler. What Variety said: Debuting Israeli writer-helmer Yuval Adler and Palestinian co-scripter Ali Waked combine forces and their own intimate knowledge of the contempo Arab-Israeli conflict to impressive effect in “Bethlehem,” a tightly wound clock-ticking thriller. Centered around the fraught relationship between an Israeli intelligence officer and his conflicted Palestinian informant, the plot sifts through the moral complexities of the situation in such a way as to seem admirably evenhanded, although there are bound to be partisan viewers from both camps who will strive to find offense somewhere. Televisual in the most complimentary sense of the word, “Bethlehem” should see its star rise in numerous offshore territories.
Kazakhstan. Directed by Ermek Tursunov (Russian, Kazakh)
Conversations of Serious Topics
Lithuania. Directed by Giedrė Beinoriūtė (Lithuanian)
Palestinian territories. Directed by Hany Abu-Assad (Arabic, Hebrew dialogue)
What Variety said: Hany Abu-Assad returns to form with “Omar,” his first Palestinian feature since the justifiably lauded “Paradise Now.” While the first half reps an engrossing if unremarkable take on the Catch-22 situation faced by young Palestinians sick of constant humiliation, the second sharpens the sting with increasing tension and bitterness, revealing secret betrayals and attempts at self-protection that cause the characters further harm. Deliberately ambiguous in how it approaches the inexorable nexus of violence, “Omar” will trouble those looking for condemnation rather than the messiness of humanity. Travel, including theatrical play, is certain but unlikely to reach the success of his earlier pic.
Peru. Directed by Adrian Saba
What Variety said: Offering a slightly fantastical plague scenario not unlike “Blindness,” “The Cleaner” exchanges that book-to-film’s large canvas and graphic societal collapse with something austere and intimate. The story of a middle-aged loner who ends up caring for an orphaned boy amid an epidemic is given carefully controlled treatment by debuting feature writer-helmer Adrian Saba. While emotional impact is ultimately less than one might hope for, the pic’s quiet mix of character-study and near-future shock should attract programmers looking for new talent or fantasy-tinged material.
My Dog Killer
Slovakia. Directed by Mira Fornay (Slovak)
What Variety said: A skinhead’s need to belong causes him to commit the ultimate transgression in Mira Fornay’s coolly observational sophomore feature, “My Dog Killer.” Set in a spare Slovak countryside of long-entrenched ethnic tensions and right-wing ideology, the pic knows the difference between right and wrong yet trusts viewers to bring the correct subjectivity into play; Fornay (“Foxes”) maintains a nonjudgmental stance that goads brains more than hearts. This scrupulous distance will be offputting to some, though Rotterdam’s jury felt otherwise, and fest play is a certainty.
Slovenia. Directed by Rok Biček (Slovene)
What Variety said: In the compelling “Class Enemy,” a group of teens blame their demanding new German teacher and his demeaning methods when one of their classmates commits suicide. As a colossal battle of wills unfolds at the high school, debuting Slovenian helmer Rok Bicek demonstrates an impressive control of tension and suspense, making each encounter between class and instructor crackle with the possibility of violence. Further fest action is a given for this convincingly performed, character-and-situation-driven drama, with niche arthouse distribution a possibility in some territories.
More Than Honey
Switzerland. Directed by Markus Imhoof (German, Mandarin)
What Variety said: Helmer Markus Imhoof uses state-of-the-art filmmaking to illuminate the world’s bee crisis in the handsomely lensed docu “More Than Honey.” Colony collapse disorder (previously addressed in “Colony” and “Queen of the Sun”) has decimated the bee population, with scientists still uncertain about the exact nature of the deadly phenomenon. Imhoof, who has a family history of beekeeping, traveled to three continents, interviewing apiculture players and examining the nature of the calamity as well as a possible solution. Surprisingly up-close images of bees at rest and in flight give buzz to an inescapably downbeat topic; fests and ancillary will be drawn.
An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker
Bosnia and Herzegovina. Directed by Danis Tanović (Bosnian, Romany)
What Variety said: As matter-of-fact as its mouthful of a title, Danis Tanovic’s touching social-realist drama “An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker” offers a modest, low-key glimpse into the struggles of an impoverished Roma family. Re-creating a shocking instance of discrimination using the very people who experienced it, Tanovic (“Cirkus Columbia,” “No Man’s Land”) employs low-budget handheld visuals, marking a stylistic return to his roots as a documentary filmmaker during the war. Although perhaps too dramatically understated for significant arthouse exposure in the West, the film will certainly travel to fests, cinematheques and human-rights events.
Winter of Discontent
Egypt. Directed by Ibrahim El Batout
What Variety Said: The personal toll in body and spirit of the 2011 Egyptian revolution is the theme of Ibrahim El Batout’s fourth and smoothest feature, “Winter of Discontent.” Shuttling back and forth between an activist’s torture in 2009 and his revolutionary activities two years later, the pic is an ultra-clean, stately lensed look at the chaotic events, oddly airless at times yet with moments of power.
Of Horses and Men
Iceland. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson (Icelandic)
What Variety said: Flabbergasting images and a delightfully dry sense of humor make “Of Horses and Men” a debut worthy of celebration. Stage and shorts helmer Benedikt Erlingsson reveals an astonishingly inventive eye and a sensitivity to the confluence of spirit between man and animal that’s impossible to capture in words, balancing desire and jealousy with the cycles of life and repping a boldly distinctive vision set in a quirky horse-riding community in the stunning Icelandic countryside. Iceland’s Oscar submission will be proudly trotted out at fests and deserves visionary distribs willing to back an outsider.
The Great Beauty
Italy. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino (Italian)
What Variety said: Rome in all its splendor and superficiality, artifice and significance, becomes an enormous banquet too rich to digest in one sitting in Paolo Sorrentino’s densely packed, often astonishing “The Great Beauty.” A tribute to, and castigation of, the city whose magnificence has famously entrapped its residents in existential crises, the pic follows a stalled author gradually awakening from the slumber of intellectual paralysis. Very much Sorrentino’s modern take on the themes of Fellini’s “La dolce vita,” emphasizing the emptiness of society amusements, “Great Beauty” will surprise, perplex and bewitch highbrow audiences yearning for big cinematic feasts.
La Playa D.C.
Colombia. Directed by Juan Andrés Arango (Spanish)
What Variety said: A scrawny Afro-Colombian boy displaced with his brothers from the country’s Pacific-coast region hustles to create a new life in “La Playa D.C.,” a well-intentioned coming-of-ager strong on ethnographic interest but disappointingly lax on narrative. First-time director Juan Andres Arango’s film would be less surprising to find at a second-tier sprocket opera than at Cannes, where it premiered in Un Certain Regard, but the nevertheless impressive debut should rep Colombia nicely on the fest circuit for the next year or so. Like its artfully shallow-focus lensing, “La Playa” erects an artificial distance between auds and characters, to the exclusion of a more proletarian appeal.
Denmark. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg (Danish, Polish)
What Variety Said: Absorbing if not particularly innovative, “The Hunt” sees helmer Thomas Vinterberg returning to the Cannes competition with another child-abuse-themed pic, 12 years after “The Celebration.” While that earlier film’s reputation as the director’s best remains unchallenged, his latest, which explores the disturbing ripple effects of a false sexual-abuse accusation, will fit snugly into the recent run of solid Danish dramas that have done well at fests and in arthouses worldwide. As an added marketing bonus, Mads Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale”) is effectively cast against type in the lead.
Indonesia. Directed by Rako Prijanto (Indonesian)
The Missing Picture
Cambodia. Directed by Rithy Panh (French)
What Variety Said: Following “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” and “Duch, Master of the Forges of Hell,” Rithy Panh grapples with the horrors of the Cambodian genocide on more intimately unsettling terms in “The Missing Picture.” A sobering chronicle of Panh’s teenage years under the Pol Pot dictatorship, the film is a brave act of witness complicated by the documaker’s decision to re-create his experiences using clay figurines, a tricky aesthetic device that raises fascinating and problematic questions of representation. Sufficiently distinguished from Panh’s other fine work on the subject, and bolstered by strong black-and-white archival footage, “Picture” would be assured of further fest play and strong broadcast interest even if it hadn’t won the top Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes.
Wajma – An Afghan Love Story
Afghanistan. Directed by Barmak Akram (Persian)
What Variety Said: A young woman’s promising future is threatened when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, and the man she hoped to marry turns out to be a cad, in didactic drama “Wajma (An Afghan Love Story).” Shot with the sort of documentary realism that characterized multihyphenate helmer Barmak Akram’s earlier “Kabuli Kid,” but lacking that film’s seriocomic p.o.v., “Wajma” is a sober, downbeat indictment of a patriarchal society’s traditional right to uphold family honor. Fests, cinematheques, universities and broadcasters seem the best bet offshore for this Sundance screenplay prizewinner.
The Don Juans
Czech Republic. Directed by Jiri Menzel (Czech)
What Variety Said: Opera is the subject, medium and language of Jiri Menzel’s latest comedy, revolving around a production of “Don Giovanni” by a Czech small-town troupe. Bursting with energy from the get-go, pirouetting through a blizzard of inventive gags spun at a terrific pace, “The Don Juans” unsurprisingly flags somewhat in extending its setup, with little infusion of new material, until the final curtain. The Mozart remains a source of real vitality, but what starts as whirlwind wit eventually grows repetitive. Still, the first 45 minutes generate a buoyant high that could carry the entire film for many auds.
Back to 1942
China. Directed by Feng Xiaogang (Mandarin)
What Variety Said: The emotion that was joined to spectacle in Feng Xiaogang’s mega-blockbuster “Aftershock” is exchanged for generic suffering and a few big yet uninvolving fighter-jet strafings in the helmer’s “Back to 1942.” Reportedly costing $35 million, Feng’s epic is set during the horrific Henan famine, when drought and the threat of a Japanese invasion were exacerbated by lamentable judgment from the Nationalist government. Shifting between individual suffering (performed, not felt) and extended political and business deliberations, the pic displays its budget but not its heart
All God’s Children
Moldova. Directed by Adrian Popovici (Italian, Romanian, English)
The Porcelain Horse
Ecuador. Directed by Javier Andrade (Spanish)
Uruguay. Directed by Alfredo Soderguit (Spanish)
Azerbaijan. Directed by Shamil Aliyev (Azerbaijani).
Chad. Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (French, Arabic)
What Variety Said: Working-class hoofer Billy Elliot was living the high life compared to “Grigris,” the eponymous hero of Chadian writer-helmer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s typically studied fifth feature. The story of a disabled, dance-crazy young buck whose involvement in an illegal gasoline-trafficking ring eventually has him running scared, this elegant, geographically vivid pic is considerably leaner than its melodramatic premise might suggest, though wan characterization makes it less immediately engaging than Haroun’s last film, 2010′s Cannes jury prizewinner “A Screaming Man.”