Friday, December 23, 2011

2011-2012 OSCAR FOREIGN FILMS- Eastern Europe (16 Films)

After two weeks travelling abroad, here are my predictions for the films from Eastern Europe.

The Eastern Europeans have recently had a very poor record in this category. Since their last win in 2001 (Bosnia's "No Man's Land"), they have received only three nominations in the following nine years (for "Katyn", "12" and "Zelary") and their prospects aren't much better this year, although Poland should manage to squeak onto the final list.

Perhaps of interest- three of the films are in Black and White....

ELIMINATED EARLY
16. SLOVENIA- “Circus Fantasticus”

Even if were not for the error of a Slovenian secretary (He or she was apparently a new employee and forgot to send the film to AMPAS headquarters in Los Angeles after the Slovenians selected the film”), “Circus Fantasticus” (aka “Silent Sonata”) would not have been nominated for an Oscar. The film is an abstract drama with no dialogue, about a travelling circus that appears out of nowhere in an unnamed wartorn country, and seeks shelter with a local Balkan family whose mother has just been killed in a battle. It’s likeable enough as an anti-war film, but out of its league here. Still, I wonder if that secretary still has his/her job!

NO CHANCE IN HELL:


15. ALBANIA- "Amnesty"
14. ESTONIA- "Letters to Angel"
13. MACEDONIA- "Punk's Not Dead"
12. CROATIA- "72 Days"

These four low-profile films have won few major awards and have not received the kindest reviews....ALBANIA's "Amnesty" was not even the country's first choice for the Albanian Oscar nod (See Controversies), and this film about a man and woman who connect sexually while visiting their respective spouses in jail is said to be fairly slow, uninvolving and inconsequential. ESTONIA's "Letters to Angel" is about an Estonian convert to Islam who returns to his country to search for his daughters, years after deserting during the Soviet war. This surreal, dream-like film apparently has no linear plot line that makes sense, and the film has not played at a single major Film Festival. The former Yugoslav republics of CROATIA and MACEDONIA have both sent mean-spirited black comedies about life in the post-war era. CROATIA's "72 Days" is about a family of Croatian Serbs who scheme to continue getting pension checks despite their elderly family member's death. Sounds really good, but reviews have been decidedly mixed. The Macedonians were the surprise winners of Karlovy Vary with "Punk's Not Dead", about a racist, foul-mouthed, over-the-hill Macedonian punk band who reunite for one last gig in a (gasp!) ethnic Albanian region of the country. It's supposed to be earthy and entertaining, but with low production values and few Oscar attributes. None of these films will have any shot at the Oscar.


OUT OF THEIR LEAGUE:


11. SERBIA- "Montevideo, God Bless You!"
10. LITHUANIA- "Back to Your Arms"
9. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Alois Nebel"
8. ROMANIA- "Morgen"

The CZECH REPUBLIC is usually a major contender in this category, but they dashed their chances by dumping a series of well-regarded films for a strange B&W cartoon called "Alois Nebel", based on a series of graphic novels. "Alois Nebel" is about a train dispatcher in Communist Czechoslovakia who witnessed severe abuses during WWII. I know the Czechs are very proud of their tradition of animation, but this uncomfortable film may be too unpleasant to watch AND depend too much on national history, while also turning off those who feel animated films don't belong here. The film is also lobbying for a Best Animated Film Oscar nod.

ROMANIA and SERBIA haven't been nominated but they're rumored to have come very close....This year, however, I don't fancy their chances. SERBIA' feel-good patriotic comedy, "Montevideo, God Bless You!" about the 1930 World Cup was a box-office smash in its home country, but reviews overseas haven't been as kind....ROMANIA's "Morgen", a topical drama about a rural couple who decide to help an illegal Turkish immigrant escape to Europe, has a better shot, but Romania has failed to be nominated for much bigger and much more acclaimed films....I think "Morgen" will be far too quiet to qualify.

These three regional powers are joined in this tier by the LITHUANIAns, who have opted for the winner of their 2011 National Film Awards (the Silver Cranes), "Back to Your Arms". There's very little information about this film online except that it's based on a true story which concerns a father and daughter separated in World War II and divided by the Iron Curtain, who then attempt to meet up in 1961 Berlin. The film has not "popped" and should be considered a long shot despite its weighty subject matter.

SMALL CHANCE:



7. HUNGARY- "The Turin Horse"
6. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "Belvedere"
5. SLOVAKIA- "Gypsy"
4. GEORGIA- "Chantrapas"

Underdogs Bosnia, Georgia and Slovakia have all selected well-received films that are probably going to get overlooked this year. From the Balkans comes "Belvedere" from BOSNIA, a sad film about women who continue to look for information on male relatives (sons, brothers, husbands) who were killed in the Srebenica massacre, years after the conflict. From the Caucasus comes "Chantrapas" (Russian for "good-for-nothing"), a breezy French-language film about a Georgian filmmaker's efforts to deal with political and commercial pressures in his career, ranging from Soviet-era censorship in his native Georgia, to capitalist pressure for box-office success in his adopted France. From the Tatras of Eastern Slovakia comes "Gypsy", a Romany-language drama representing SLOVAKIA. The film is a gypsy take on "Hamlet", combining a teen's coming-of-age story with an inside look at Roma culture, political prejudices, violence, morality and fatherly ghosts.

Reviews for Bosnia's heart-wrenching film note that it is a difficult one to watch...I've seen the Slovak film and it's a very good one, though not a likely nominee.....Georgia's ode to filmmaking is likely to appeal to the Oscar committee, though nobody seems to say it's the best film of the year.

As for HUNGARY and their lumbering "Turin Horse", I think that it would place dead last if the regular committee was voting. Two and a half hours of excrutiatingly slow B&W footage of peasant misery (I've heard twenty minutes is spent on boiling potatoes), this is not a mainstream film, and this does not have mainstream appeal. I'm putting it at #7 on the off chance that the Elite Committee likes it....but I doubt it.

DARK HORSES:

3. BULGARIA- "Tilt"
2. RUSSIA- "Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel"

Both of these films would represent a major surprise if they were shortlisted, but for very different reasons. RUSSIA's "Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel" (which, confusingly, is actually the third film in the "Burnt by the Sun" series) was a critical and financial failure in its native Russia, but I think it was not such a foolish choice. Nikita Mikhalkov has never failed to make the shortlist before, and the big-budget war drama is technically impressive, which will appeal to some of the technical members of the committee. Many committee voters will probably fondly remember the first film, which won in 1995 (though they may struggle to fill in the gaps by missing the second film, "Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus") and the World War II theme is always a Foreign Film favorite. In the end, I think "Burnt" will fail to make the cut, but it's not an automatic out, despite its critical drubbing.

As for BULGARIA, "Tilt" is a very different animal....A relatively obscure, somewhat low-budget teen feature set against the backdrop of the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, "Tilt" is often compared to the Shakespearean Romeo & Juliet. The film has quietly been making a name for itself and most people really do seem to like the film. I don't really think "Tilt" will make the shortlist, but I have a feeling it will place fairly well in the rankings.

GOOD SHOT:



1. POLAND- "In Darkness"

Realistically speaking, POLAND is probably the only Eastern European country that can expect to be on January's 9-film shortlist. Agnieszka Holland has a strong record with Oscar and the film practically shouts Oscar nominee with its plot featuring 1- World War II, 2- Jewish characters and 3- cute children in peril. "In Darkness" is a dark, heavy drama about a self-interested Catholic rogue who ends up helping Jews who are trying to escape Nazi deportations by hiding in the sewers of Lviv (now in Ukraine, but then part of Poland). Lots of moral dilemmas, conflicted characters and well-crafted cinematography will probably push this film to the next round.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21

Number of countries participating this year: 16

Number of countries disqualified: Slovenia, which forgot to actually send their official submission to Los Angeles.

Number of countries opting out: 5- ARMENIA, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Latvia and Ukraine...UKRAINE actually convened an Oscar selection committee, but determined that no film met all of the AMPAS requirements (not sure why Cannes feature “You My Joy” wasn’t eligible). AZERBAIJAN and LATVIA sent films last year and had some definite possibilities (especially “Through the Eyes of a Ghost”, by Rustam Ibragimbekov who co-wrote three foreign Oscar nominees, and Latvia’s baity WWII film “Three to Dance”), so not sure why they aren’t participating. Isolated BELARUS hasn’t submitted a film since 1996.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Very few. I’d say four and that’s being very generous.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 13 primary languages- Albanian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, French, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Romany, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, with a smattering of Turkish (in the Romanian film), German, Ukrainian and Yiddish (all Poland), Georgian and Slovak. The Slovenian film has no dialogue.

Highest profile film: Probably Russia’s highly touted flop “Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel”, which is famous for its lack of success and for being the second sequel to the 1995 Oscar winner. Hungary’s “Turin Horse” and Poland’s “In Darkness” are most famous based on their actual reviews, while Estonia's film has virtually no information online whatsoever.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Poland.

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Albania, which was forced to send its second-place film.

Number of Comedies: Three from the former Yugoslavia- Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia.

Number of Animated Films: One, from the Czech Republic.

Number of Documentaries or Horror Films: None.

Oscar History: Two Oscar nominees are in the mix- Poland’s Agnieszka Holland has been nominated twice- once for Best Foreign Film (representing West Germany) for “Angry Harvest” at the 1986 Oscars and once for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1992 Oscars for “Europa Europa”. Nikita Mikhalkov was nominated for three Foreign Language Film Oscars in 1993, 1995 and 2008, winning on his second try for “Burnt by the Sun”.

Martin Sulik is representing his country for the sixth time after Oscar runs in 1993, 1995, 1997 2000 and 2005. Disqualified entrant Janez Burger from Slovenia previously represented his country in 2005 for “The Ruins”.

Four countries have won the Oscar nominations for their countries (Bosnia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia) while three others have been nominated (Georgia, Macedonia and Poland) and two others (Bulgaria and Serbia) have been short-listed. Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia have never been nominated since becoming independent, but their films have been nominated as part of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Albania, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia and, surprisingly, Romania have had no luck yet with Oscar.

Number of Female Directors: Only one...Poland’s Agnieszka Holland.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: France-based Georgian director Otar Iosseliani is 77, while Romania’s Marian Crisan is 35.

Familiar Faces: Very few that would be familiar to Western audiences...Dedicated film viewers are most likely to recognize actor Rade Šerbedžija (Mission Impossible 2, Batman Begins) who stars in his son’s “72 Days”, although there’s also German actor Benno Fürmann in “In Darkness” plus director Nikita Mikhalkov who co-stars in his own “Burnt by the 2”.

Tough Choices: I thought the 2012 winner for Best Foreign Language Film would be the Czech Republic’s critically acclaimed drama “Lidice”, but the Czechs prevented that from happening when they selected peculiar adult cartoon “Alois Nebel” instead...Also eliminated in the preliminaries: “Identity Card” from Czech Republic, “The House” from Slovakia (Berlin), “Medal of Honor” from Romania and “Elena” from Russia.

Controversies and Changes: Eastern Europe provided the two biggest controversies of the year.

ALBANIA initially selected “The Forgiveness of Blood”, a film in Albanian, shot in Albania with an American director (Joshua Marston), and a mixed American and Albanian crew. It was no surprise that AMPAS disqualified “Blood”; they did the same thing to Marston’s similarly filmed “Maria, Full of Grace”, which Colombia selected in 2004. AMPAS is pretty resolute that “Best Foreign Language Film” means the film must be both “Foreign” (i.e., not American) and in a “Foreign Language” (i.e., not in English). I think it’s fair to exclude English-language films (subtitled movies are definitely a different animal than British, Canadian and Australian films in English...I would hate to see this category dominated by “King’s Speech”, “Moulin Rouge” and “Lord of the Rings”, even if they are good films!) but any foreign-language film should be eligible, even if the director does happen to have a US passport. In fact, a number of international directors are American citizens, Green Card holders, or otherwise based in the U.S., so this is really unfair. The worst part is that it was rival director Buraj Alimani who reportedly complained to the Academy that "Blood" should be barred from the category. Alimani is a sore loser who wanted his own film to be selected (his “Amnesty” was the runner-up and is now representing Albania), at the expense of the hard work of the Albanian actors and crew of the film that an impartial jury of Albanian filmmakers selected as the best Albanian film of the year. Marston himself said it best: ““I don't understand why the academy is in the business of adjudicating the citizenship of a film. Why can’t the submitting countries be given the authority and autonomy to decide for themselves what films best represent them? Why would it be so threatening to the process of the academy to let that happen?”

RUSSIA also caused controversy when they selected a critically lambasted flop over two more acclaimed films. The selection of "Burnt by the Sun 2: Ctadel" over "Elena" (winner, Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2001) and "Faust" (winner, Golden Lion, Venice) was rumored to be strongly influenced by director Nikita Mikhalkov's connections within the selection committee. The President of the Committee refused to sign the decision and called for Mikhalkov to withdraw his film from consideration so that a better regarded film could take the Russian spot. Others also claimed that it was ridiculous to choose a sequel that depended so much on seeing the previous film (even Oscar voters who remember the 1995 winner "Burnt by the Sun" probably won't have seen the second film in the series, 2010's "Burnt by the Sun 2: Exodus"). I actually think that the high production values of "Burnt" mean it's not such a bad choice overall, but the reasons why it was chosen seem surely politically influenced.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 7- ALBANIA, ESTONIA, HUNGARY, LITHUANIA, MACEDONIA, SLOVAKIA and SLOVENIA, plus I picked Croatia’s film last year when I thought it was eligible. Bonus points for Albania, since I predicted they would try to send “Forgiveness of Blood” but end up sending “Amnesty”. CZECH REPUBLIC was the only country that took me completely by surprise.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve already seen the Slovak (B+) and Slovene (B-) films, but I’m most excited to see Croatian black comedy ”72 Days”.

Last year's race: I saw 8 of last year’s 17 contenders, and the best was without a doubt Georgia’s “Street Days”, followed by Albania’s “East West East”. Estonia’s “St. Tony” was one of the worst films I saw last year, while Bulgaria and Poland weren’t much better.

Next up (after the holidays): the 16 films from Asia.