Wednesday, January 9, 2008



Last, and certainly not least, are the 15 nominees from Eastern Europe.

The Eastern Europeans have an unusually strong line-up this year and could conceivably contribute up to three of the five eventual nominees (Eastern Europe has only achieved this feat on three occasions, 1966, 1968 and 1996) although this will require a lot of luck and support. After all, in 1996 there were 39 submissions....Now there are nearly double the number of films to compete against.

Again, we'll start with statistics:

Number of countries invited: 21

Number of countries submitting films: 15

Number of countries submitting for the first time- 1 (Azerbaijan)

Number of countries NOT sending a film: 6- Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine. Armenia produced their most expensive film ever ("The Priestess"), which was directed by a previously submitted director and had already premiered in the USA, so it's suprising they didn't participate. Ukraine created a special committee for the first time to choose a nominee.....but it never met to pick one. (!) I bet they got paid a lot for being on it though. Expect Latvia to return next year (for the first time since 1992) with the long-awaited war epic "Defenders of Riga", which premiered late and just barely missed the deadline.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: A realistic chance? 6, which is great.

Number of Languages Represented: 13. Azeri, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, German, Hungarian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Slovene (the Azerbaijani and Slovakian films are bilingual; the Georgian film is in Russian)

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: So many websites are saying that Cannes winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is a "lock" for the win.....There are NEVER any locks in this category. "4 Months" is likely to be nominated, but is no more locked than "Goodbye Lenin" or "Volver" which were NOT nominated. Best shot from the East this year? Czech Republic's "I Served the King of England".

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: Hungary's gory, scatological fantasy "Taxidermy"

Number of Comedies: There are no "light comedies", although Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are sending "comedy-dramas". Some might consider Hungary's film a "black comedy"

Number of Horror Films: Zero, although once again some might say Hungary belongs here.

Oscar History: The Czech's Republic's Jiri Menzel won this award for Czechoslovakia for "Closely Watched Trains" way back in 1968. Russia's Nikita Mikhalkov won it in 1995 for "Burnt by the Sun" and was nominated for "Close to Eden". Andrzej Wajda won an Honorary Oscar in 2000 and has also received three nominations in this category for Poland. Macedonia's Milcho Manchevski was nominated in this category for "Before the Rain" (and lost to Mikhalkov) in 1995. That's a lot of talent!

Oldest and Youngest: 81-year old Andrzej Wajda (Poland) and 32-year old German director Martin Repka (representing Slovakia)

Number of Female Directors: None

Tough Choices: The Czech Republic had to choose between two Oscar winners and ended up snubbing Jan Sverak's (Kolya) "Empties". Russia chose "12" over "The Banishment" by the director of the acclaimed "The Return", and "Aleksandra". Serbia had to turn down multi-story "The Optimists". Bulgaria surprised by choosing "Warden of the Dead" over the acclaimed thriller "Investigation". Hungary had a great film year, and was forced to dump the visually stunning "Dolina", popular comedy "The Bloodythirsty Pensioners", Cannes-featured "The Man From London" (with Tilda Swinton) and nationalist sports drama "Children of Glory" (the Hungarians picked one of these last year).

Familiar Faces: A lot of local stars, but nobody recognizable internationally.

Film I'm Most Excited to See: Serbia's "The Trap", which I've already ordered on ebay, alongside the Bosnian/Croatian nominees.


Africa makes a lot of good movies. They really do. However, sub-Saharan African countries have submitted a grand total of 10 films to this competition in the past 40 years. 4 of these were made by white South African directors, and 1 by a French director representing the Cote d'Ivoire. The other five came from Burkina Faso (1989), Cameroon (1980), Chad (2002), Congo-Kinshasa (1997) and Tanzania (2001). This year, like most years, not a single sub-Saharan African country sent a film.

The four North African contributors, especially Algeria & Egypt, have sent 36 films in the past 40 years. However, the only African representative this year is Arab Egypt's romantic fantasy "In the Heliopolis Flat".

Why the disinterest from Africa? Moolaade, Hyenas (Senegal), Night of Truth (Burkina Faso), Hollow City (Angola), Chocolat (Cameroon)....All worthy competitors, but African countries don't seem to be willing to fill out the paperwork to get their films seen in Hollywood.

Now the countdown:


16. Taxidermy (Hungary)

I'm very curious to see this bizarre fantasy movie by the director of "Hukkle", about three generation of men.....Featuring ridiculously morbid obesity (see picture), live embalming, and vomit as a subplot, this is certainly not what will attract Oscar voters. And Hungary knows it too. Good for Hungary for choosing what they must have honestly felt was their best picture of the year, although they had so much to choose from, it's a shame that Hungarian films with a stronger choice at a nomination were unable to do so. I bet half the audience walked out.


15. Caucasia (Azerbaijan)

14. In the Heliopolis Flat (Egypt)

13. Warden of the Dead (Bulgaria)

12. Short Circuits (Slovenia)

11. Armin (Croatia)

Like with all the also-rans, these films are just not good enough to make the next round. AZERBAIJAN's first-ever submission is a melodrama about a family fleeing the war-torn Caucausus by train to start a new life in Moscow. The production values are supposed to be very low, and the film features an over-reliance on flashbacks and politics.....But a warm welcome to Azerbaijan to the competition. Hopefully their chances will improve over time.

The one African film, EGYPT's "In the Heliopolis Flat" is a romantic-fantasy-comedy that got mixed reviews even in its native Egypt. A modern young man rents a new apartment in the Cairo suburubs only to find the apartment haunted by the ghost of a female tenant! Hijinks ensue and the young man becomes involved with a local girl.

From the three more upscale Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia) come three dramas, none of which have made a mark internatioanlly. BULGARIA's drama, "Warden of the Dead" concerns a homeless boy who lives in a cemetery who brings together a father and daughter who have never known another. SLOVENIA'S "Short Circuits" is a multi-character drama featuring a number of intelocking stories. It swept the Slovenian Film Festival and ran unopposed for the Slovenian Oscar nomination. CROATIA'S "Armin" has gotten slightly more of a chance. It won awards at several film festivals, but the typical reaction to the film is usually "good, could be better". It's a road movie focusing on a Bosnian man and his son who travel to Croatia to have the son audition for a role in an international film production.

None of these five films have any chance at the shortlist.

10. Russian Triangle (Georgia)

9. Return of the Storks (Slovak Rep.)

8. It's Hard to Be Nice (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

7. Shadows (Macedonia)

It's always possible that one of these four films from four of the "new" Eastern European republics could surprise if they connected particularly with the Oscar committee, but it looks like the competition may be too strong for them.

The submission from GEORGIA, "Russian Triangle" is a taut thriller involving mafia, a serial killer and the war in the Caucusus. It got very good reviews, but it's definitely a genre film.

From BOSNIA, comes "It's Hard to Be Nice" about a petty criminal/taxi driver who tries to go straight and earn an honest living for the sake of his wife and new baby. However, that's easier said than done in corrupt post-war Bosnia. It's supposed to be touching and well-made, but I'm not confident it has enough behind it to propel beyond a glut of good films and make the final 9.

The same could be said for SLOVAKIA's "Return of the Storks", a German co-production that premiered right before the deadline. There's not much information about it, but it did well enough to beat out a well-received Slovakian war drama for the Slovak nomination. "Storks" is a romantic comedy-drama about a young German flight attendant who, after a personal crisis, retreats to the home of her grandmother who lives in a small village in Carpathia, near the Slovak-Ukrainian border. It got good reviews, but probably not good enough for the final 9.

The best chance among these mid-tier films in the nominee from MACEDONIA who, along with director Milcho Manchevski, is hoping for their second nomination in this category with the surreal "Shadows". It's supposed to be a mysterious, ghosty experience with a plot that defies description. Oscar has previously shown this director some Oscar love, but I think reaction to the film has been a little too divisive to reach the finals.

6. Katyn (Poland)
5. The Class (Estonia)
4. The Trap (Serbia)

POLAND is getting a little bit of buzz....And well it should....After all, on paper, "Katyn" is probably the strongest film in the whole competition....It's about World War II (this committee annually proves that it LOVES World War II), focuses on a suitably serious subject matter (a 1940s massacre by Soviet troops) and is the work of a beloved aging director (Andrzej Wajda) who has been nominated in this category several times, and who was the recipient of an Lifetime Achievement Oscar a few years ago. And yet for all that, I still have the feeling it won't make the cut. Reading the reviews, (like Macedonia's film) it seems too "difficult" a film for Oscar. But we'll see.
ESTONIA and SERBIA are not getting much buzz at all....And that's a shame because they've gotten some of the best reviews of the year, and could well use the boost. I think it's very possible that one will make the shortlist....But which one? Estonia's "The Class" is a violent teenage drama about how one student is brutally bullied by his classmates, and what results after one of his fellow classmates attempts to stick up for him. It sounds very similar to Sweden's "Ondskan" (Evil) which was the surprise nominee of 2004. This film is supposed to be better. Yugoslavia used to be a regular nominee in this category, usually (but not always) for films from Serbia. "The Trap" may mark Serbia's return to the fold. A film-noir drama that presents the viewer with a horrible moral dilemma, "The Trap" made some splash at Palm Springs. A father with a desperately sick child has no money for medical treatment, and is offered an unusual opportunity to make the money quickly. Many are finally saying Serbia could be the surprise nominee this year.
FYI. Both are available on DVD (with English subtitles) in their native countries....I bought my copy of "The Trap" on ebay (though it hasn't arrived yet). Have you?
3. 12 (Russia)
2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Romania)
It's rare that ROMANIA is a player in this category, and if you look at recent history, it's also rare that the winner of the Cannes Film Festival gets nominated (the last were 1993's "Farewell My Concubine and 1988's "Pelle the Conqueror"). Everyone is saying that abortion drama is a LOCK for the win....This is completely untrue....The film isn't even guaranteed of a shortlist spot. This kind of low-budget gritty naturalistic film is not what this committee usually votes for. However, I predict that the film's quality will send it to the next round. If it does, it will be the first time Romania has ever advanced.

As for RUSSIA, they've failed to be nominated since 1997 although they have come very close on any number of occasions. Their version of "12 Angry Men" set against the backdrop of the Chechen war is supposed to be excellent and should also make the next round with less difficulty than most.

BEST BET FROM THE REGION: (Even though nobody is talking about it....)
1. I Served the King of England (CZECH REPUBLIC)

Pretty sets, light comedy, historical drama and the presence (in the background) of the Second World War II....Mix all that with an acclaimed Czech director who won this award in 1967 should ensure that "England" should make it to the shortlist.

Why is no one talking about it?
Well, that's it....The shortlist will be announced tomorrow.

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