The films from Eastern Europe this year are not a very promising bunch....17 films are competing from the 21 eligible countries.....
17. ESTONIA- “The Temptation of St. Tony”
16. AZERBAIJAN- “The Precinct”
15. CROATIA- “The Blacks”
Better luck next year for these three republics, formerly parts of the USSR and Yugoslavia...Both AZERBAIJAN and ESTONIA have gone with surreal, metaphorical route filled with abstract imagery, while CROATIA has gone with grim realism.
“The Temptation of St. Tony” has gotten a lot of festival play (I saw it in DC) and “The Precinct” has somehow managed a tiny US release in California. Despite interesting (and strange) trailers, there’s no way either can contend for an Oscar. “St. Tony” takes a cue from David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”, and includes a lot of bizarre imagery including murder, dead dogs and cannibalism, but it has no linear plot, makes very little sense and manages to be boring despite its racy subject matter. “The Precinct” follows a photographer who angers his fiancée by postponing their marriage to take a job in Africa. The couple get into a car accident and find themselves in a metaphysical police precinct where the cops know every detail of their lives. Too weird.
Despite a glowing review from Variety, Croatia’s “The Blacks” is also guaranteed not to advance. This bleak war drama told in flashbacks looks at war crimes committed by Croatian forces during the 1990s. With dark lighting and unlikeable characters plotting to kill civilians and destroy the country’s infrastructure, there are as many people who hate the film as like it.
ONLY SLIGHTLY MORE LIKELY:
14. SLOVAKIA- “The Border”
13. SLOVENIA- “9:06”
12. BULGARIA- “Eastern Plays”
The Bulgarians (shortlisted for the first time last year) have selected a bleak drama about two brothers- one, a recovering drug addict, the other a teenaged skinhead. The Slovenians have selected a thriller about a policeman who becomes obsessed with the life of a man whose death (murder? suicide?) he is investigating. The Slovaks have selected a fascinating documentary about an ethnic Hungarian town that was literally split down the middle by invading Soviets in the 1940s, dividing families and farms between Czechoslovakia and the USSR (and now Slovakia and Ukraine).
I’ve seen the films from Bulgaria and Slovakia, and they’re simply not good enough. “Eastern Plays” somehow won the Tokyo Film Festival, but it’s not an interesting film and I’m sure there will be enough people who agree with me who will keep the film out of the running. The only nice thing I can say is that Bulgarian production values have come a long way since the 1990s. The Slovakian film is fascinating- I liked it very much. But it’s definitely a flawed documentary whose main attribute is that it highlights an issue that I never would have known about otherwise. Certain elements could have been expanded upon (particularly the ethnic element), others edited, and while it is certainly worth seeing, it doesn’t deserve an Oscar. The Slovenian film is said to be a decent-enough film, but I’ve heard it begins to fall apart in the end- exactly what you don’t what a thriller to do. Better luck next year to these three too...
UNLIKELY FOR THE SHORTLIST:
11. HUNGARY- “Bibliotheque Pascal”
10. ALBANIA- “East West East”
9. MACEDONIA- “Mothers”
8. LATVIA- “Hong Kong Confidential”
7. POLAND- “All That I Love”
Three short films, consisted of two dramas and a documentary.
An Asian comedy made by Eastern Europeans.
These five films all strike me as very unlikely....None of them has any strong base of support, and none of them are universally loved. The dark horse out of these is really the Latvian comedy, of which there is nearly ZERO information online.
ALBANIA's comedy, "East West West" has a winning plot, and I thought it might be a contender. Circa 1990, an Albanian cycling team leaves the reclusive dictatorship for a cycling competition in France. As soon as they make it to Italy, they learn the government has been overthrown and they have to figure out what to do. Reviews have been positive but unenthusiastic.
HUNGARY's film, "Bibliotheque Pascal", is a visually creative film about an Eastern European woman who must recount the fantastical story of how she was trafficked into sexual slavery, in order to regain custody of her child. Sounds like "Big Fish" mixed with "Taken". People like it a lot, or hate it.
The MACEDONIAns have chosen a rather strange film called "Mothers". It premiered at Toronto and features a short about nine-year olds reporting an imaginary flasher, a slightly longer film about a man making a documentary about a small village, and finally a documentary about a serial killer. Too weird.
POLAND's coming-of-age comedy-drama, "All That I Love", has the best chance of the lot, but this likeable Communist-era story about a young man using punk rock music to join in the Solidarity Movement doesn't have enough behind it to make the finals.
LATVIA....Who knows? There's not a single English-language review online. "Hong Kong Confidential" is a fun romantic comedy-drama about six intersecting lives set in Hong Kong and starring an international cast from Hong Kong, Japan, Latvia and Lithuania speaking Japanese, Cantonese and English. Sounds like fun, but not really Oscary.....
VERY DARK HORSES:
6. BOSNIA- “Cirkus Columbia”
5. SERBIA- “Besa”
4. ROMANIA- “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle”
These three Balkan countries aren't likely to make the finals, but they do have a slight shot. BOSNIA has the biggest name....Since winning the Oscar for "No Man's Land" eight years ago, Danis Tanovic has only made three films. His latest, "Cirkus Columbia", is his first return to Bosnian filmmaking since his Oscar win. The film tells the story of a man returning to his home village from Germany in the years just before the Balkan wars. ROMANIA has the highest-profile film, "If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle", about a jailed juvenile delinquent at war with his mother. Although it's won many awards and charmed a large minority of film critics, there are plenty of people who are bored by the film, its slow pacing, its long takes and are likely to give it low marks. Also remember that neither Romania nor its New Wave has ever charmed Oscar voters before. It has a slight chance with the Elite Committee, none with the large one. SERBIA's "Besa" (Solemn Promise) is an interesting multi-ethnic drama from what used to be one of the world's most multi-ethnic nations. During World War I, a Serbian principal is called to the frontlines, forcing him to leave his pretty Slovene wife to be protected by his uneducated Albanian manservant (played by a Serb). Their agreement is a besa and the relationship between the three forms the plot of the film. The film is largely an unknown quantity- No major film festivals, no review on Variety, making it difficult to figure out.
All of these films have a VERY uphill battle.
COULD GET LUCKY:
3. RUSSIA- “The Edge”
2. GEORGIA- “Street Days”
The Eastern Europeans have sent a fairly weak group this year....Enemies on the battlefield, Georgia and Russia, have a chance at the shortlist, although I don't think either one can make the Final Five.
As expected, RUSSIA has the bigger film...."The Edge" is a big, expensive film about the highs and lows of life in one of the Soviet Union's Siberian work camps after the deportations in the 1950s. It's filled with big trains, romance and high production values and it has an Oscary story....Good reviews but no one seems to be excited about it.
GEORGIA's "Street Days" is a fascinating, low-budget morality play whose plot reminds me of the brilliant "Klopka", which made the shortlist for Serbia three years ago. A man is blackmailed by corrupt cops who want to extort money from his wealthy friend's son. Faced with a choice of going to jail or framing the teen, this film is said to pack a wallop. Good luck to Georgia to get their second nomination!
1. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Kawasaki’s Rose”
I think Kawasaki's Rose will be the one Eastern European flick to make this year's shortlist. In the film, a popular anti-Communist dissident's life falls apart when it is revealed in the press that had been forced by the Czechoslovakian government to act as a informer decades before. The film has gotten good reviews and Oscar has picked Jan Hrebejk before ("Divided We Fall"). The plot sounds Oscary and it's not a strong year.....
Now, the statistics:
Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21
Number of countries participating this year: 17
Number of countries disqualified: None that I know of.
Number of countries opting out: 4 former Soviet republics. ARMENIA and LITHUANIA submitted films last year, but chose not to enter this year, despite having some decent releases. Also absent: UKRAINE (“You, My Joy” will be eligible next year) and Europe’s last dictatorship, BELARUS, which hasn’t submitted a film since 1996. Belarus should have sent the handsome war drama “Brest Fortress”.
Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many….Two or three, with a few more dark horses.
Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 14 primary languages: Albanian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Cantonese (!), Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovene. Interestingly enough, the Slovakian film is in Hungarian. Lots of multi-lingual films….the Azeri film features some Russian, the Albanian film has some Italian, the Serbian one features Slovene and Albanian, the Bulgarian film has some Turkish, the Hungarian film features some Romanian and the Latvian film is mostly in Cantonese (with some English and Japanese mixed in).
Highest profile films: Probably ROMANIA’s “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” which won the Silver Bear at Berlin.
Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: I’m predicting the CZECH REPUBLIC for the third year in a row (although neither of the last two got nominated!)
Longest Shot for a Nomination: ESTONIA’s surreal experimental film, “The Temptation of St. Tony”.
Number of Comedies: Two. ALBANIA and LATVIA, although ESTONIA and POLAND have some comedy elements.
Number of Documentaries: One and a half. SLOVAKIA plus part of MACEDONIA’s three-part film.
Oscar History: The race features one former Oscar winner- BOSNIA’s Danis Tanović who won the 2002 Foreign Film Award for “No Man’s Land”, and two former nominees- CZECH REPUBLIC’s Jan Hrebejk (“Divided We Fall”) and MACEDONIA’s Milcho Manchevski (“Before the Rain”).
Albania’s Gjergj Xhuvani (“Slogans”), Hungary’s Szabolcs Hajdu (“White Palms”), Latvia’s Maris Martinsons (“Loss”) and Russia’s Alexei Uchitel (“His Wife’s Diary”) have participated in the Oscar race before, although Martinsons competed for his adopted country of Lithuania.
Eight of the seventeen countries have been nominated before (including Serbia, whose filmmakers got many nominations as Yugoslavia).
Number of Female Directors: None. :(
Familiar Faces: No household names...Japanese actress Kaori Momoi (“Memories of a Geisha”, “Kagemusha”) co-stars in the Latvian submission….Alexander Mashkov (“Behind Enemy Lines”) stars in the Russian one….Bosnian actor Emir Hadzihafizbegovic stars in his tenth Oscar submission (this time, for Croatia).
Tough Choices: The biggest snub was “How I Ended This Summer”, which was the favorite for RUSSIA, although the “one-film-per-country rule” meant an early exit for massive period drama “Tsar” and critical flop “Burnt by the Sun 2”. The other big snub was ROMANIA’s “Tuesday Before Christmas”….In any other year, “On the Path” would have been a shoo-in for BOSNIA...My pick for SERBIA, “The Woman With a Broken Nose”, lost by one vote and my pick for LATVIA, “Rudolf’s Gold” was also the runner-up….Others that missed the list “Three Seasons in Hell” from CZECH REPUBLIC, “Dark House” and “Little Rose” from POLAND, and call-girl drama “Slovenka” from SLOVENIA.
Controversies and Changes: No big stories from this part of the world. The best I can do is CROATIA, which picked a controversial film about war crimes committed by Croatian forces during the Balkan wars. RUSSIA was able to avoid a controversy when three-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Nikita Mikhalkov pulled his poorly reviewed “Burnt By the Sun 2” from consideration for the Russian slot. Many had predicted that Mikhalkov’s stature and stellar Oscar record, and the fact that the first film had won the 1995 Oscar, would mean that, despite poor reviews, the film would rep Russia.
Number of countries I predicted correctly: I did very well! 9 out of 17!! (Namely, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia) plus I had “Besa” as my Serbian alternate. …..However, I’ll admit I’d never even heard of the films from Azerbaijan, Latvia, Russia or Slovakia before they were selected.
Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the nominees from BULGARIA (C-), ESTONIA (D) and SLOVAKIA (B+) at this year’s EU Film Festival in Washington, DC, and was somewhat disappointed. There are quite a few intriguing films on the roster, but if I could only pick one, I’d choose ALBANIA’s “East West East” since I enjoyed Xhuvani’s “Slogans” and the plot (an Albanian cycling team is confused as to what to do when their government is overthrown while they are abroad in Italy) sounds like a lot of fun. Runner-ups for me: GEORGIA’s morality play, “Street Days” and LATVIA’s Asian comedy “Hong Kong Confidential”.
Last year's race: I only managed to see 3 of last year’s 17 films. Disturbing SLOVENIAn thriller (“Landscape No. 2”) was a flawed film, but it was also great bloody fun to watch, and managed to make the audience jump (B+). It was far better than POLAND’s high-concept dramedy “Reverse” (B-), which had a great idea but only so-so follow-thru, and ARMENIA’s boring 50-minute documentary, “Autumn of the Magician” (D). I hope to see the nominees from ESTONIA (DVD) and ROMANIA (Netflix) before the end of the year. Eastern Europe didn’t crack the Top Five last year, although Bulgaria made the shortlist.