The Eastern European republics have submitted 17 films this year....It's difficult to believe that in 1991, there were only eight countries that existed in the region!. Last year, the ex-Communist countries were snubbed entirely, despite strong contenders from Poland, Romania and Russia. This year, the list can basically be divided into two halves- half the films are clearly out of their league and will have little to no chance at getting an Oscar nomination....The other half the films are real threats, and it will be really difficult to figure out which of these will resonate with the Oscar committee and which ones will not.
NOT A CHANCE IN HELL
17. ARMENIA- Autumn of the Magician What to say? This film has so many strikes against it....The film is a a "short film" (only 50 minutes long), not a feature....The film is a documentary, not fiction....And it's boring. Honestly, it's gotten good reviews at documentary film festivals, but I had never heard of the subject (89-year old Tonino Guerra) and had never seen any of his films....The film buffs on the Oscar committee will likely be more moved than I was, but it stands no chance at a nomination. Armenia should have chosen "Bonded Parallels" instead. Anyway, if you want to see the film, it's available online (for 3 euros) so you can watch it and judge for yourself like I did: http://www.joiningthedocs.tv/main.aspx?level=Society_culture_sport&content=748293715969
16. MACEDONIA- "Wingless"
15. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "Nightguards"
14. CROATIA- "Donkey"
13. SERBIA- "St. George Shoots the Dragon"
These four films from the former Yugoslavia are all destined to be also-rans....None of them have won any major awards, and none have gotten better-than-average reviews. The Bosnians have chosen a comedy-drama "Nightguards" about a number of quirky characters, including security guards at a furniture store, one of whom thinks he's pregnant. The Croatians have chosen "Donkey", a drama about a family reunion at the end of the Yugoslav wars and the donkey that witnesses family secrets being revealed. It couldn't even manage Best Croatian Film at Croatia's National Film Awards (The Pula Film Festival National Competition). The Macedonians had no Macedonian-language films this year, so they had to choose the only film that was eligible- the Czech-language coproduction, "Wingless". Despite an interesting plot- a Czech man is prophesized to die at the age of 29 and strange things begin to happen when his birthday approaches- the film is supposed to be overly surreal and allegorical. The Serbians have chosen a big-budget World War I drama- "St. George Shoots the Dragon". It's supposed to be a good enough movie, but nobody "loves" it, and it was only chosen when Serbia's original film was found to be ineligible. Director Srdjan Dragojevic directed the brilliant and harrowing war drama "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame". If he couldn't get a nomination for that, then forget "George". The former Yugoslavia's brighest hope this year is the film from Slovenia (See next section). Better luck next year.
GOOD BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH
12. ALBANIA- "Alive"
11. LITHUANIA- "Vortex"
10. SLOVENIA- "Landscape No. 2"
9. HUNGARY- "Chameleon"
The Albanians have chosen a drama ("Alive!") about a carefree (and gorgeous) Albanian college student who finds himself involved in a centuries-old blood feud when he returns to his ancestral village for a funeral. Hungary submitted a light drama about a con artist who falls for one of the women he is trying to cheat. The Lithuanians have selected a beautifully filmed black & white drama ("Vortex" aka "Waterhole") about the travails of one man's difficult life under Communism. The Slovenians have chosen a horror-thriller ("Landscape No. 2") about an amoral thief who realizes too late that some stolen documents have the power to destroy him and everyone he cares for. Four interesting films!!
Albania and Lithuania are recent arrivals to the Oscar competition, and each produces only a few films each year. "Alive" and "Vortex" have both received decent enough reviews, but Albania's film suffers from lower-than-average production values, and Lithuania's is too long for its own good. Hungary has a distinguished record in this competition (they still rank in the top twelve of all time...) but they haven't been nominated in 20 years (How the superior "Fateless" missed out with its built-in, baity Holocaust theme, I'll never know...). "Chameleon" is supposed to be an interesting film and I hope to see it, but it's out of its league here. I've seen "Landscape No. 2" and it's a great film...it also has the best reviews of these four films. However, it's a bleak and bloody film...almost a horror movie in terms of its plot and its violence. Not the right genre for Oscar...FYI, the Slovenian nominee is on DVD in the United States already. Go see it if you can!
8. ESTONIA- "December Heat"
7. GEORGIA- "The Other Bank"
6. POLAND- "Reverse"
5. BULGARIA- "The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner"
BULGARIA has selected a drama about a grandfather and his amnesiac teenage grandson cycling around the European countryside to restore his memory ("The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner"). ESTONIA has selected "December Heat", a box-office hit at home, drenched in 1920s period music, and featuring a patriotic true story about an attempted coup organized by the Russians during Estonia's first go at independence. GEORGIA has set their story against a more modern set of political problems- the war in Abkhazia. "The Other Bank" follows a young boy whose family is separated by this longstanding but little-known war, as he searches for his father in a war zone. POLAND has selected a period black comedy- "Reverse"- set in the 1950s, about a girl, her mother and her elderly grandmother trying to cover up the murder (and dispose of the body) of a Communist agent.
All of these films are likely to leave a positive impression on the Academy, but are likely to miss the mark in making the Top Nine- They don't have the universally good reviews to make the Top Six for the large committee, nor the awards and/or backing to get one of the Wildcard slots from the smaller committee.
Bulgaria really does have a baity plot though...this sort of "Kolya-esque" intergenerational drama has worked in the past, and could potentially charm the older voters who serve on the committee. It's also the biggest Bulgarian production in decades, and it can't be counted out entirely.
4. RUSSIA- "Ward No. 6"
3. ROMANIA- "Police, Adjective"
ROMANIA and RUSSIA have sent two highbrow films that have gotten very good reviews. Russia's "Ward No. 6" is based on a Chekhov story about a doctor who becomes a patient in his own mental asylum. The story has been transplanted to contemporary Russia and is supposed to be a thought-provoking and intellectual film. It may be too highbrow for the larger committee, but stands a chance with the elite one. ROMANIA (along with SOUTH KOREA) suffers from an Oscar curse....Nearly every year, they send high-quality films that come close to being nominated....but every year they fail to make the shortlist. This year is no exception, and "Police, Adjective" may become the first Romanian movie to make the cut....Having said that, I predicted they Romania would make it to the finals for the past two years. I was wrong both times. "Police, Adjective", another intellectual film, concerns a Romanian cop surveilling a juvenile criminal. Both films have a lot of great acting, great writing and moral dilemmas but what they both lack is being part of the....
HOLOCAUST SHOWDOWN OF 2009
2. SLOVAKIA- "Broken Promise"
1. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Protektor"
Under Communism, Czechoslovakia was second only to the former USSR in the number of Oscar nominations...Each of the two republics of the former Czechoslovakia have sent World War II films that focus on the relations of Jews and Christians around the early 1940s. "Protektor" is about a Czech radio announcer who agrees to broadcast Nazi propaganda in return for a guarantee of protection for his flamboyant Jewish wife who refuses to follow new anti-Semitic rules in German-occupied Bohemia. It's brand-new and there's not much information about the film on the Internet...."Broken Promise" is about a young Jewish man coming-of-age in the increasingly Fascist 1930s. The film boasts very strong acting and has appeared at a number of mid-range film festivals worldwide. Neither film has won any major awards and neither film has gotten reviews as good as the films from Romania or Russia....The Slovak movie is made on somewhat of a low-budget. What they DO have is the Holocaust. The Oscar committee can rarely resist a WWII movie or a Holocaust movie. I expect one of these films (but probably not both) will join Norway's "Max Manus" on the Oscar shortlist. This isn't really fair, but that's the way this committee votes!
Now, the statistics:
Number of countries invited: 21
Number of countries submitting films: 17
Number of countries disqualified: None.
Number of countries opting out: 4- AZERBAIJAN, LATVIA and UKRAINE, all submitted films last year. BELARUS is also missing, but they last submitted in 1996. Also missing: MONTENEGRO, which produced its first film since independence- "Look At Me". Too bad. Belarus' Post-WWII drama "Cadet" might have been a contender.
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Lots of dark horses....I'd say eight are threats.
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Thirteen- Serbo-Croatian (3 films) and Czech (2 films) + one film each in Albanian, Bulgarian, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak and Slovene....The Armenian film is a mystery- the version I saw was almost entirely in English with a little bit in Italian, so I'm not sure how it qualified at all.
Highest profile film: ROMANIA's "Police, Adjective" has made the biggest name internationally, but there's a lot of potential on this list.
Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Probably, the CZECH REPUBLIC
Country with the Least Shot at a Nomination: ARMENIA's dull documentary short.
Number of Comedies: Poland sent a black comedy about three women covering up a murder....I've heard that some consider the Bosnian film to be a black comedy as well.
Oscar History: Lots of young, up-and-coming directors on this list....Nobody has been nominated for an Oscar before although Macedonia's Ivo Trajkov ("The Great Water"), Russia's Karen Shakhnazarov ("Zero City") and Serbia's Srdjan Dragojevic (the awesome "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame") have been in this race before.
Number of Female Directors: Just one- Hungary's Krisztina Goda
Familiar Faces: Discerning viewers may recognize Vlad Ivanov ("4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days") in the Romanian submission. Lazar Ristovski of Serbia and Emir Hadzihafizbegovic of Bosnia (who costars in the Croatian film), are easily the most famous actors in their respective countries. I'd never heard of Tonino Guerro, the documentary subject of Armenia's film, but apparently he's quite a name to some people.
Tough Choices: A lof of people thought Poland would go with Andrzej Wajda's "Sweet Rush", even though reviews weren't great....The Russians had a nine-film shortlist, of which "Wild Field" was the most acclaimed. Also ignored: "Operation Danube" (Czech Republic), "Ordinary People" (Serbia) and "Tales from the Golden Age" (Romania).
Controversies: Armenia's odd selection was directed by the President of Armenia's Film Board. The director of the Russian submission was on this year's selection Committee. Serbia's Oscar committe originally chose "Here and There" co-starring Cyndi Lauper (?!) by one vote over "St. George". They consulted with AMPAS and were advised the film was more than 50% in English, causing them to switch to their runner-up. Macedonia's film got through the nationality requirements despite being featuring a Czech cast speaking Czech.
Number of countries I predicted correctly: Only 5- Estonia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia....I chose Bulgaria's film LAST YEAR since it played on the film festival circuit for nearly a year before premiering at home in Bulgaria. I came pretty close with Albania, Georgia and Romania....And my picks for Bosnia ("On the Road") and Russia ("Tsar") didn't premiere in time but could be threats next year.
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've already seen the nominees from Armenia (terribly boring) and Slovenia (suspenseful, great but not Oscary). I'd love to see Poland's black comedy "Reverse" and Albania's blood feud drama "Alive!", but doubt they will ever come out in the USA.
Last year's race: I saw the submissions from Estonia ("I Was Here"), Latvia ("Defenders of Riga") and the Czech Republic ("The Karamazovs"). Estonia's was great, Latvia's well-made and the Czech film is the only time I have made the conscious decision to go to sleep in a cinema. Just awful.
Next: the films from Asia