Monday, December 10, 2012

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS- Eastern Europe (20 Films)

Wow! 20 movies from Eastern Europe! Eight of these are from the former USSR (two more will be reviewed in the Asian section) and five of are from the former Yugoslavia. So the break-ups of those two countries have really increased the number of movies that end up in Hollywood. Even though most of these movies are long-shots, it's nice to see so many countries interested in competing at this level.

20. ESTONIA- "Mushrooming"
19. ARMENIA- "If Only Everyone"
18. LATVIA- "Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg"
17. LITHUANIA- "Ramin"
16. UKRAINE- "Firecrosser"

I don't mean to pick on the countries of the former USSR, but I can't see any of these obscure titles advancing, or even coming close.

LITHUANIA has chosen (for the second time) a documentary short. Oscar rules state that a film must be more than 40 minutes long. Clocking in at a spare 58 minutes, "Ramin" tells the story of 75-year old Ramin Lomsadze, a former Soviet champion wrestler who searches for his long-lost love in rural Georgia. It's all said to be very uplifting but this low-key documentary won't be able to keep its head above water in a field of 71 films, especially considering its spare length and a natural prejudice of some voters that documentaries don't really belong in this category.

Telling three separate stories based on Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam, LATVIA's "Gulf Stream Under the Iceberg" is a Russian-language costume drama set in the 17th, 19th and 20th centuries. Each version has a different incarnation of Lilith as seductress in the Latvia of a different century. It sounds fascinating and it looks gorgeous. Its problem is that the narrative is said to make very little sense. Although IMDB ratings have absolutely nothing to do with Oscar predictions, it's interesting to note that "Iceberg" has the lowest rating of all 71 films (5.5)

The final Baltic republic is the least likely of all- I saw ESTONIA's black comedy "Mushrooming" in November, whose story concerns a corrupt politician and his wife going hunting for mushrooms with an obnoxious local rock star. The film is advertised as a dark black comedy filled with murder and mayhem, but without giving much away, this is quite misleading. Not much happens, and by the end you feel like you've spent 90 minutes watching a bickering married couple get lost in the woods (in fact, you have). And somewhat surprisingly, the end message almost seems like it's justifying corruption.

I've also seen UKRAINE's "Firecrosser" which is an interesting film based on the life of Ivan Datsenko, a Ukrainian Soviet war hero who went from national hero to Soviet gulag prisoner to Canadian Indian chief (yes, really....) It's an interesting film about a man whose fascinating life is unknown in the West but this first Ukrainian blockbuster is a bit uneven. Most damaging for its Oscar chances, the third act- set in Canada and with the Ukrainian cast speaking or dubbed mostly in English- is a bit painful to watch. I saw it on in case you want to check it out. It's worth a watch, if only to see a film from this beautiful (yet cinematically unknown) country.

Lastly, we have possibly the most obscure film in the Foreign Film race- ARMENIA's patriotic "If Only Everyone"- a government effort which concerns a mixed Armenian-Russian woman who seeks to locate the grave of her father who died in Armenia's war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s. She discovers that the grave lies across the border in enemy Azerbaijan and enlists the help of an Armenian army commander to secretly cross the border and lay flowers at the grave. It won Best Armenian Feature at the Golden Apricot Film Festival but the film has zero buzz and the politics are probably going to be too obscure for the Academy. The Azerbaijanis have protested that the Armenians plagiarized a story by an Azerbaijani writer. I can't see it making it very far.


15. SLOVAKIA- "Made in Ash"
14. BULGARIA- "Sneakers"
13. SLOVENIA- "A Trip"
12. RUSSIA- "White Tiger"
11. GEORGIA- "Keep Smiling"

These five films (including two of the three remaining Soviet republics in Europe) are pretty much on the same level as those I ranked 16 thru 20. None of them have the buzz or the critical acclaim necessary to advance to the next round.

Four of the films are about the lives of disillusioned 20-somethings in the post-Communist era. BULGARIA's "Sneakers" was a box-office hit in Bulgaria in 2011, but this story of six aimless, borderline-violent slackers (5 guys, 1 girl) escaping their problems on a trip to the seaside was described by the Hollywood Reporter as "the most irritating bunch of whining screen narcissists", despite a somewhat positive review. This angst-ridden youth drama set to a soundtrack of Bulgarian rock music is unlikely to appeal to the older-skewing Oscar committee.

SLOVENIA has also sent a road movie, this time a drama centering on three old high-school friends (straight guy, gay guy, straight girl) reuniting for a road trip through the Slovenian countryside (I did this in May! It's a great idea!). One of the guys is about to be deployed to Afghanistan, and the three have clearly grown apart since their carefree days at school. It's a low-budget film with lots of talking and though it's gotten good reviews, it's too low-key to advance here.

Also made on a low budget, SLOVAKIA's "Made in Ash" is a road movie of a completely different nature...It's a gritty drama about a young Roma woman in Slovakia seeking work and a better life across the border in Germany. As inevitably happens to young women in these sorts of movies, she ends up lured and trafficked into stripping and prostitution. Noticed have been positive but not enthusiastic, and the low budget won't help.

In a somewhat lighter vein is GEORGIA's dark comedy "Keep Smiling", skewing reality TV and beauty pageants. In the film, ten women- most in dire financial straits- compete in a televised beauty pageant (Georgia Mother 2010) to win an apartment and a desperately needed cash prize. The Hollywood Reporter describes it as "Honey Boo Boo" made by the people behind "Desperate Housewives". "Keep Smiling" looks like fun but I've heard it's a flawed film. It'll need a huge amount of support to get that coveted "out-of-nowhere" slot on the shortlist (like comedy "Everybody Famous" in 2001). That's doubtful.

Lastly, we have RUSSIA's strange fantasy "White Tiger". During World War II, an injured Russian soldier is nearly killed in battle. He miraculously heals from his wounds within days but suffers from amnesia and claims an ability to communicate with machines, particularly the tanks on the battlefield. Just like the story of Moby Dick, the soldier becomes obsessed with defeating one particular German tank. Filmed in the old-school Soviet-style, the film is said to be "very Russian", meaning abstract and philosophical. The one other film I've seen by director Karen Shakhnazarov leads me to believe his films are an acquired taste. Despite some positive notices, the film has won no awards. My friend that saw it fell asleep. Maybe next year for Russia.

10. ALBANIA- "Pharmakon"
9. BOSNIA- "Children of Sarajevo"
8. CROATIA- "Cannibal Vegetarian"
6. HUNGARY- "Just the Wind"

In a weak Eastern European field, these five films are likely to finish in the Top Half, but probably won't threaten for the shortlist.

ALBANIA's "Pharmakon" was the only Albanian film eligible, which made choosing the national submission rather easy. I can't find a single review online, but this film about a love triangle between a cruel, domineering father, his son who has recently returned from abroad, and a nurse working in the father's clinic looks very interesting. Despite its small film industry, Albania has sent good films in the past (particularly "Alive", but also "East West East" and "Slogans") which gives me confidence that it's a decent movie, although likely not an Oscar contender.

AZERBAIJAN has returned to the competition with "Buta", a culturally rich film (I saw the trailer...there also appear to be no reviews online) about a little boy living in a remote village with his grandma, and his friendship with an old man. Turns out this old man used to court his grandmother in their youth, decades before. "Buta" is both the little boy's name and a style of carpet made in the village. Oscar loves stories about old people and children ("Kolya", "Central Station", "The Thief") or just children ("Children of Heaven", "Vitus", "The Day My Parents Went On Vacation") but I've heard this is more of a children's film than one for adults, and it has zero buzz...Azerbaijan is traditionally not a contender in this category.

Moving on to BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, we have "Children of Sarajevo", the story of a brother and sister fifteen years after they were orphaned in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The siblings are now 21 and 14, and the older sister, now sporting an Islamic headscarf, is struggling to support the family and keep her younger brother from juvenile deliquency in 2012 Sarajevo. The film is said to be a good one and it won an award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, but I think it's too low-key and quiet to advance.

CROATIA's "Cannibal Vegetarian" is said to be one of the most disturbing films in this year's competition. "Vegetarian" is about an unscrupulous gynecologist/surgeon, who performs abortions when the local mafia-owned prostitutes get pregnant. After botching an operation, he is ordered to perform an abortion on a woman who's already eight months along. A scene of animal cruelty is said to be particularly disturbing. The movie is said to be disturbing and depressing, but also of those Eastern European films that makes you question whether life has any meaning. The larger committee will hate it, and I don't believe the film has what it takes to get "saved".

HUNGARY won the Silver Bear in Berlin for "Just the Wind", the story of a Roma family eking out a living against the backdrop of a series of racial murders targeting the Roma community. Despite its award in Berlin and generally positive reviews, "Just the Wind" is just the sort of slow, minimalist film with little dialogue that the Academy rarely chooses. Not everyone likes it, so it's probably out of luck here.

5. MACEDONIA- "The Third Half"
4. SERBIA- "When Day Breaks"
3. POLAND- "80 Million"

Important events in the 20th century histories of Poland and the former Yugoslavia form the plotlines of these three dramas.

If Oscars were given based on plots, then SERBIA's "When Day Breaks" would probably win this year, since it combines virtually all of Oscar's favorite themes (World War II!! Musical Composers!! Jews!!) in one film. In this Goran Paskaljevic film, a 70-year old Orthodox Serbian professor discovers that his real parents were Jewish deportees who gave him away to neighbors in order to save him from the Nazis during WWII. He finds that his father was a composer in pre-WWII Yugoslavia and sets out to have his last unfinished symphony performed. It's total Oscar bait, but reviews have been decidedly mixed in the West leading me to believe that it's a long shot for the shortlist. I'll see it in January when it premieres here in Washington, DC and make up my own mind.

POLAND's "80 Million" focuses not on World War II but on the Solidarity movement against Communism in the 1980s. It's an exciting, commercial thriller that sounds like a Hollywood heist film. In the film, a series of Solidarity (an anti-Communist labor group that helped overthrown Communist rule in Poland) activists race against the clock to save the group's assets from being seized by the Polish Communist government in 1981. They accomplish this by staging a daring bank robbery of some sort. This is the sort of light and entertaining but still serious movie that the Academy sometimes goes for. Perhaps it's a bit too commercial? We'll see....

A bigger long-shot is MACEDONIA's controversial "The Third Half", about a football (soccer) team in 1940s Macedonia, coached by a German Jew in what was then a region of Yugoslavia occupied by Nazi-allied Bulgaria. Bulgaria has strongly protested that the film incorrectly shows Bulgarians deporting Jews. The Macedonians say this indeed happened and that thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps in this way. The Oscar committee will likely know little or nothing about the controversy so that won't affect the film's chances in any way. The film hasn't made much of a blip outside of the Balkans. In its favor is its WWII theme and its exciting story. It also has the highest IMDB rating of all 71 films worldwide (although I'd say the voting looks SUSPICIOUSLY high....may be some vote stuffing involved). All in all, the politics and subject matter are probably a bit too obscure for the Oscar committee and I've heard that the mishmash of languages (Macedonian, Bulgarian, German, Serbian) makes it difficult for Westerners to figure out who's who....But who knows?

2. ROMANIA- "Beyond the Hills"
1. CZECH REPUBLIC- "In the Shadow"

Even though there are 20 films in the running, I'm not really sure if either of these two films will end up making the shortlist!

Most people are certainly saying that ROMANIA's "Beyond the Hills"- winner of Best Actress and Best Screenplay at Cannes 2012- is one of the favorites. However, this two-and-a-half hour movie about two women, a convent, lesbianism (maybe?) and an exorcism (maybe?) is definitely too weird to make it out of the larger committee. In the film, a Romanian woman living in Germany journeys to a remote convent in rural Romania to meet the best friend from her youth. The woman demands that her friend return with her to the West. Her friend insists she will stay in the convent. From there, things go a bit haywire. Some say that the Oscars wouldn't ignore Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days") a second time, but "4 Months" was a much more popular film that "Hills". Reviews have been positive but not as strong as "4 Months", and the film earned only a single nomination (and no wins) at the European Film Awards (for Screenplay; it lost to a Danish film). It's entirely possible that the elite committee will "save" Mungiu in order to avoid a second snub. Indeed, that is "Hills" only chance....I think in the end, they're going to miss out.

That brings us to the CZECH REPUBLIC. The Czechs used to be a major power in this category, although they've only been nominated once in the past decade (for "Zelary", which I never got round to seeing). This year's nominee- "In the Shadow"- hasn't gotten much attention on the film festival circuit but it has gotten great reviews from those who have seen it, and it features a number of the themes that this category likes best. Shot in gorgeous film noir, this complicated mystery-thriller focuses on a routine burglary in 1953 Prague that proves to be part of a major conspiracy, leading to "show trials" in which many Czechoslovakians ending up being executed. Featuring strong acting performances and themes revolving around anti-Semitism, Communism, morality and all the big themes that Hollywood likes. "Shadow" has got a definite shot.

Now, the statistics:

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21
Number of countries participating this year: 20

Number of countries opting out: Only grouchy BELARUS is sitting out this year and that’s no surprise considering they haven’t sent a movie since President Lukashenko came to power in 1996. Tiny MONTENEGRO, now the smallest nation in Eastern Europe, considered sending a film for the first time ( but decided against it since the only film that met the screening requirements (“Local Vampire”) was a lowbrow comedy with little critical appeal. KOSOVO and MOLDOVA are the only other Eastern European countries which have never entered the race.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Probably only four, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all of them missed it. It should be noted that in the past four years, these countries have only managed two shortlist spots (for which only “In Darkness” was nominated)

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15 primary languages. Albanian, Armenian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian (Georgia, Lithuania), Hungarian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian (Armenia, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine), Serbo-Croatian (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia), Slovak and Slovene. The Armenian nominee appears to be equal-parts bilingual. You’ll also hear quite a bit of German in entries from Czech Republic, Macedonia and Slovakia.
The films from Macedonia and Ukraine are also multi-lingual this year….. Perhaps most surprising is that Lithuania sent a film in Georgian, which is not spoken anywhere near the country.

Highest profile film: Romania’s “Beyond the Hills” easily has the most buzz since it’s the first feature directed by Cristian Mungiu since “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”, Mungiu’s snub in 2008 is rumored to have prompted the creation of an “elite committee” to assist in selecting the the Oscar shortlist. “Beyond the Hills” won Best Actress and Best Screenplay at Cannes 2012. As usual, there are quite a few obscure films on the list. I can’t find a single online review for three of them.

Country with the Best Shot at a Nomination: Probably the Czech Republic’s under-the-radar thriller.  

Longest Shot for a Nomination: Estonia’s meandering black comedy “Mushrooming”.

Number of Comedies: Two, from Estonia and Georgia.

Number of Animated Films or Horror Films: None.

Number of Documentaries: One, a documentary short from Lithuania.

Oscar History: Nobody’s been nominated before, but seven of the twenty directors have been in the race before.

Goran Paskaljevic has had one of his films submitted for an Oscar for the fourth time after “Special Treatment” (1980), “Time of Miracles” (1990), “The Powder Keg” (a.k.a. “Cabaret Balkan; 1998) and “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” (2005), alternately representing Serbia and unified Yugoslavia.
Branko Schmidt of Croatia (“Queen of the Night”, “Vukovar: The Way Home”) and Karen Shakhnazarov of Russia (“Ward No. 6”, “Zero City”) are each in the race for the third time.
Aida Begic (Bosnia, “Snow”), Benedek Fliegauf (Hungary, “Forest”), Darko Mitrevski (Macedonia, “Goodbye 20th Century) and Cristian Mungiu (Romania, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”) are in the race for a second time.

Four countries have won the Oscar for their countries (Bosnia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia), 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. The three Baltic republics, as well as Albania, Slovenia and, surprisingly, Romania have had no luck yet with Oscar.

Number of Female Directors: Four ladies are in the running- Aida Begic (Bosnia), Nataliya Belyauskene (Armenia), Rusudan Chkonia (Georgia) and Iveta Grofova (Slovakia). Belyauskene and Grofova are the first women to represent their countries.
Oldest and Youngest Directors: Ukraine’s Russian-born Mykhailo Ilienko is 65 while Slovenia’s Nejc Gazvoda is only 28.
Familiar Faces: Though some actors are surely famous in their home countries, there are no internationally well-known faces in this crop of films. Oscar watchers may recognize the lead in Croatia’s “Cannibal Vegetarian” (Rene Bitorajac) as one of the two stars of Bosnia’s Oscar-winning “No Man’s Land” (he played the Serb soldier).
His “Cannibal Vegetarian” co-star, Bosnian actor Emir Hadžihafizbegović, is appearing in his eleventh Oscar submission (5 Bosnian ones, 4 Croatian ones, 1 Serbian one + 1 Yugoslavian one)...Is that some kind of record?

Tough Choices: In my view, the biggest snubs were for “Parada”, the gay-themed comedy from Serbia that proved to be a major hit all over the former Yugoslavia, and “The Exam”, a Cold War thriller from Hungary. Both were beaten by more artistic works.
It was a bad year for films that won their 2012 National Film Awards…”Ave” (Bulgaria), “Flower Buds” (Czech Republic), “Citadel of Sleeping Butterflies” (Lithuania), “Rose” (Poland), “Once Upon A Time There Lived A Simple Woman” (Russia) and “Archeo” (Slovenia) all won Best Picture but were ignored by their Oscar committees. Poland’s acclaimed “Rose” was a particularly shocking snub.
Also eliminated in the preliminaries: “Tadas Blinda” (Lithuania), “The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears” starring Victoria Abril (Macedonia), “The Best Intentions” (Romania), Thr Horde (Russia) and “The Confidant” (Slovakia)
Controversies and Changes: Some minor controversies….
AZERBAIJAN accused ARMENIA of plagiarizing the work of an Azerbaijani writer and “twisting” the plot so that the Armenian characters are seen as the good guys. The accusations are likely untrue as the two countries routinely fight over everything, as could be seen most recently in the Armenia boycott of Azerbaijan’s successful hosting of Eurovision 2012.
LITHUANIA’s vote had to be extended to a second round after their Oscar committee couldn’t decide. The reason wasn’t announced, but it was probably due to the fact that many preferred “Tadas Blinda”- a big-budget, box-office period movie- over the barely Lithuanian documentary short made in faraway Georgia.

Perhaps the biggest controversy came from MACEDONIA’s film “The Third Half”.  Though the selection of the well-received film was not controversial in Macedonia, it caused a huge stir in neighboring Bulgaria. Many in Bulgaria object to the portrayal in the film of Bulgarian soldiers helping to deport Jews from current-day Macedonia to concentration camps. Bulgaria, which was allied to Nazi Germany, has always maintained that it was the only Nazi ally which categorically refused to deport its Jewish population. Macedonia maintained that the film was historically accurate and several Bulgarian members of the European Parliament variously called for the film to be banned, or for Macedonia to be condemned.
SERBIA introduced a new selection format this year, requiring filmmakers to submit their films for consideration, along with a  300 euro fee. In previous years, all Serbian releases were eligible. The eventual winner, “When Day Breaks”, arranged a one-theatre release in an obscure town in order to compete, meaning that the film was virtually unknown when was is selected, beating out its main competition, hit gay-pride comedy “Parada”.
Number of countries I predicted correctly: 7- ALBANIA, ARMENIA, BOSNIA, ESTONIA, LATVIA, SLOVENIA and UKRAINE. The release dates were really what screwed me up this year. I was well aware of the strength of the Macedonian, Romanian, Serbian and Slovak candidates (see my predictions!), but thought they would be eligible next year.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve seen the nominees from Estonia and Ukraine (which you can watch yourself legally like I did at but missed out on four others at this year’s EU Film Festival in Washington, DC, which was notable only for absurdly inconvenient times and schedules.
There are so many interesting films on the list this year. If I could only choose one, it would have to be Georgia’s reality TV comedy “Keep Smiling”, though I’d feel terrible missing out on the intriguing stories of “Cannibal Vegetarian”, “Pharmakon” and “Buta”.

Last year's race: I only saw five of last year’s mostly obscure list of 16 films. Eventual nominee (and probable Oscar runner-up) “In Darkness” was the best of the five (A-), with Slovakia’s “Gypsy” also very good (B+). I was less a fan of Croatia’s “72 Days” (C), Hungary’s “Turin Horse” (C-) and Slovenia’s “Silent Sonata” (C+)

Next up: the 17 films from The Americas, Africa, Australia and the Middle East.  


ivan coss y leon said...

Excellent post, dzong...

For familiar faces... What about Sebastian Koch? The german actor was in The Lives of Others and Black Book and will be in the fifth Die Hard... He's one of the male leads in the czech submission

Spartak said...

Can you please give the link to the Estonian film (I couldn't find it there).

dzong2 said...

I guess I didn't recognize Sebastian Koch's name or face, so I didn't consider it "familiar"!

PS- What a surprise from the Golden Globes...The final slot went to NORWAY's Kon-Tiki! Maybe I'm underestimating them?

Spartak- I saw "Mushrooming" at the EU Film Festival in Washington, DC and didn't watch it online.

Spartak said...

Yeah, probably you should place it a bit higher, but not too much. I mean check out the previous years: 2012 (Flowers of War), 2011 (The Edge + ridicuolous nomination for "The Concert"), 2010 (Baaria) and so on...

Alicia Conway said...

Films are such a great art field for expressing various ideas. Here's an interesting example of a nice option for students:
Students' Movie