Saturday, January 10, 2009

2008 Contenders from Eastern Europe (19 Films)


Last year, Eastern European films did exceptionally well....Two spots in the Top Five (Poland and Russia) plus one more made the shortlist (Serbia), with the Romanians, Estonians and Czechs probably not far behind. This year, the pickings are slimmer....The Asian films this year generally fall into top-tier "contender" or bottom-rung "also-rans"....The Eastern European films should probably fill out the middle. Most of them will come across as good films, but I can't see more than five of these standing any chance at a nomination. Expect Poland and Romania to do well with the large committee, with Russia as a dark horse with both of them.

First, the statistics:

Number of countries invited: 21

Number of countries submitting films: 19, shattering last year's record of 15. Latvia submitted for the first time in fifteen years.

Number of countries opting out: Only 2- Armenia (last submitted 2003) and Belarus (last submitted 1996)....Neither was missed!

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Only five or six....It's a relatively weak field.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 17. Albanian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, German, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Magyar, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Slovene, Ukrainian (but not Georgian)

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Poland

Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: Azerbaijan

Number of Comedies: Basically only two- Russia and Serbia, although some might also classify Slovenia's film as a comedy.

Oscar History: None of these directors have yet been nominated for an Oscar, but 8 out of 19 countries have been nominated in the past(not including countries like Croatia, Slovakia and Ukraine who did play important roles in past Czechoslovak, Soviet and Yugoslav nominees). Arsen A. Ostojic was also selected to represent Croatia in 2005, Nae Caranfil represented Romania in 2002 and Serbia's Goran Markovic was selected to represent Yugoslavia in 1988.

Number of Female Directors:Three- Russia's Anna Melikyan, Bosnia's Aida Begic and Macedonia's Teona Strugar Mitevska

Familiar Faces: Very few household names here, but movie viewers will probably recognize British actor Ewen Bremner in one of the lead roles in the Georgian submission. Fans of the cinema of former Yugoslavia will probably recognize Serbian actor Svetozar Cvetkovic and Bosnian actor Emir Hadzihafizbegovic in "The Tour" (Hadzihafizbegovic also co-stars in "Snow"). Anna Geislerova, co-star of four of the Czech Republic's recent submissions, finds herself now competing for Albania playing the title role in "The Sadness of Mrs. Schneider".

Tough Choices: Albania hasn't had a contender for years, but this year they had two good ones, forcing them to dump comedy "Mao Tse-tung". The Bulgarians also had a good year, meaning that "Seamstresses" and "The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner" were out of the running. The Czechs couldn't send "A Country Teacher", which got middling reviews but a lot of festival play. The Hungarians didn't send "Delta". The Russians as always had a difficult decision and they were forced to shun high-profile heavily dramatic works by Sokurov (Alexandra), Zvyagintsev (Banishment) and Uchitel (Captive) in favor of light fantasy "Mermaid". And the Slovaks got flack from the producers of expensive gothic horror film "Bathory" (see below)

Controversies: The producers of the big-budget horror drama "Bathory" raised a big stink in Slovakia, alleging discrimination because they held dual Czech & Slovak citizenship. The Slovak selection committee said they didn't consider "Bathory" because it didn't meet AMPAS standards for being a national Slovak production. Ukraine's submission was written by a high-ranking politician.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 8- Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, although I came really close with Estonia and Slovenia, and I chose the Albanian submission as a winner last year.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: It's a toss-up between Serbia's black war comedy "The Tour", Russia's Amelie-esque fantasy "Mermaid". Today, I'd choose Serbia.


19. AZERBAIJAN- "Fortress"
18. UKRAINE- "Illusion of Fear"
17. MACEDONIA- "I Am From Titov Veles"
16. HUNGARY- "Iska's Journey"

These four films can enjoy the fact that they competed, but none of them have the remotest chance with Oscar....Azerbaijan and Hungary have sent dramas with rather low production values. In Hungary, this was done to achieve a gritty and realistic feel...In Azerbaijan, this was probably done because its the best the national cinematography can do at this point in their history. Azerbaijan's obscure film, which does not even appear to have been released at all internationally, is about an ancient fortress in an ancient village, and the interaction between a film crew and the local inhabitants, all set against the background of a possible modern-day war breaking out in the ancient battlegrounds. It sounds interesting and the stills I have seen look beautifully colorful, but the one review I've read described the filmmaking as "inept". Hungary's docudrama, a grim look at human trafficking, and shot with real street kids, is too grim and gritty to score here.

As for Macedonia and Ukraine, they have selected a pair of rather pretentious dramas, each allegedly loaded up with symbolism and confusing dream sequences. Macedonia's is a grim look at three sisters living in a polluted town with a lead factory...Ukraine's centers on a wealthy businessman who goes to jail and ends up believing he is King Solomon. Ukraine's is supposed to be particularly confusing. In any case, both are too obtuse for this competition.


15. ESTONIA- "I Was Here"
14. LATVIA- "Defenders of Riga"
13. CZECH REPUBLIC- "The Karamazovs"
12. BOSNIA- "Snow"
11. LITHUANIA- "Loss"

For the first time in history, films from all three Baltic republics are competing against each other. Alas, this will not be their year. Estonia's adolescent drama "I Was Here", is about an privileged teen who becomes a drug dealer. If last year's shocking "Klass" couldn't get a nomination, "Here" doesn't have a chance. Lithuania's "Loss" is a gritty multi-character drama, focusing on the theme of six degrees of separation...The shaky hand-held camera will probably doom Lithuania's chances. Latvia's big-budget war drama "Defenders of Riga" took several years to film and was a nationalist box office smash....Unfortunately, Western critics weren't kind and slammed the film as dull and jingoistic, despite extremely impressive production values. Alongside the Baltics in this low-tier are Bosnia's "Snow", a drama about a town populated by women survivors of the Bosnian wars of the 1990s, and the Czech Republic's "The Karamazovs", an intellectual play-within-a-film retelling of a story by Dostoevsky. I've heard "Snow" is good but grim, and that "Karamazovs" is intriguing but very confusing. Nobody is saying any of these five are bad films, and all have garnered mostly positive reviews, but reviews have been mixed enough to ensure that none of them advance to the next round.


10. CROATIA- "No One's Son
9. BULGARIA- "Zift"
8. SLOVENIA- "Rooster's Breakfast"
7. SLOVAKIA- "Blind Loves"
6. GEORGIA- "Mediator"

Also in the middle tier are three thriller- from Bulgaria, Croatia, and Georgia- plus a documentary from Slovakia and a quirky drama from Slovenia. Bulgaria has chosen a Tarantino-esque black-and-white thriller about an innocent man arrested for murder in the closing days of WWII and released years later during the heydey of Communism. I've heard it described as a "midnight movie"....Great reviews, but I don't think this committee will bite. The Croatians have selected "No One's Son", which was almost disqualified because the film couldn't find a distributor in Croatia to screen the film for seven days to meet AMPAS regulations. It's a thriller featured a disabled war veteran at the center of a web of family secrets and intrigue. In yet another thriller, Georgia selected multi-character, multi-lingual (German, Russian and English) "Mediator", a confusing but satisfying murder mystery, which has generated little buzz or festival play thus far. Documentaries don't stand much of a chance in this category, which is the main handicap for Slovakia's well-received "Blind Loves", about the real lives of a number of people living with blindness. Slovenia's "Rooster's Breakfast" is a small, quirky rural drama that was a major box-office hit in its home country, but which is probably too "small" to make an impact on this committee amidst so many epics and higher-profile film.


5. ALBANIA- "The Sadness of Mrs. Schneider"
4. SERBIA- "The Tour"

Old-style Czech filmmaking has traditionally done VERY WELL in this category, and the Albanians have a film that fits that description. "The Sadness of Mrs. Schneider" is a semi-autobiographical tale of an Albanian film student studying in 1960s Prague, and his romance with a local married woman. Expect it to place higher than expected. Serbia's black comedy "The Tour" was described by Variety magazine as "pitch-perfect". I'm not sure if the humor will translate well to the Academy's audience, but this story of a group of travelling troupe of actors trying to fulfill a contract in one of the most violent times and places of the Yugoslav wars, sounds great. Serbia made the shortlist last year, and "Tour" has a dark horse chance as well.


3. RUSSIA- "Mermaid"
2. ROMANIA- "The Rest is Silence"

Like Korea, Romania has bad luck with Oscar....They keep sending good films and probably keep coming close....But despite 22 submissions since 1970 and despite being the "favorite" last year, they remain without a single Oscar nomination. I've been wrong before, but "The Rest is Silence" may well break the drought. "Silence" is an old-fashioned, epic and light-hearted look at the love of movie-making, about the making of the first-ever Romanian feature film circa 1912. I think this theme is likely to appeal to Academy members, particularly those who are older and/or involved in behind-the-scenes production, like most of the Oscar committee. Drawbacks: It's long and maybe a little melodramatic. Still, it stands a good chance to make the list. Russia's answer to Amelie is "Mermaid" (Rusalka), about a girl with green hair trying to find a way to make her dreams come true. It might be a little TOO light for an Oscar nomination, but everyone who sees it seems to fall for the young protagonist's charms, meaning it should be expected to score a large number of high-scoring votes. It could be a sleeper.


"Tricks" Poland's submission is total Oscar bait...and is supposed to be a pretty damn good film too. Featuring a cute little 6-year old protagonist, old-style filmmaking and a heartwarming family theme, this is exactly what the Kolya-loving Foreign Film Committee tends to like. It therefore has a great chance to get one of the six slots selected by the at-large committee. If it fails to make the Top Six however, I think it will probably be ignored by the elite committee. In this family drama, a six-year old boy living in a small town with his Mom and "perfect" older sister decides that a man visiting the town is actually his long-lost father. Expect to see it on the list.

Anyway, the shortlist should come out tomorrow, and it should be an interesting bunch of films.

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