Monday, December 2, 2013

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- Eastern Europe (19 films)

Here is a review of the films from the nations of Eastern Europe, including the debut entries from Montenegro and Moldova.

For those of you who are interested in trying to see some of these movies, the nominees from Austria, Brazil, China and France are available on Netflix in the United States, the films from Hong Kong and Luxembourg are available on iTunes, and the films from Denmark and Hong Kong are available on Several others (including Belgium, Korea, Portugal and as of December 5, New Zealand) are available online and in their countries of origin with English subtitles.

19. LITHUANIA- "Conversation About Important Topics"
18. MOLDOVA- "All God's Children"
17. SLOVAKIA- "My Dog Killer"
16. AZERBAIJAN- "Steppe Man"
15. MONTENEGRO- "Ace of Spades"

Welcome to Moldova and Montenegro! I feel terrible putting this year's two debutantes in the bottom category, but let's be realistic- these two small Eastern European republics won't be nominated this year. MONTENEGRO's crime drama "Bad Destiny" looks interesting. It's about a Montenegrin man who is released from jail for war crimes committed while he was part of an elite paramilitary unit during the Bosnian wars. It turns out due to a series of twists and turns that the incriminating video of the wartime executions that put him in jail was released to the media by the man himself (but why?) and he ends up on the run from his old paramilitary colleagues who have emerged from hiding (they were also shown committing war crimes on the video) to take revenge. I visited Montenegro last year, and the film promises action and lovely scenery, but this is clearly a genre action film....As for MOLDOVA, "All God's Children", it's about a young boy and his mother who left the country years before to work in the sex industry in Italy. A Western couple is trying to adopt the boy, when the mother mysteriously returns. Turns out she is being blackmailed to sell the child. A topical film for Moldova (although the director is from neighboring Romania; both countries speak the same language), which is an unfortunate hub for human trafficking....However, one look at the trailer indicates that this is a low-budget effort with very low production values. It looks like a television program. Good luck in the future, and I'll definitely search these movies out.

AZERBAIJAN and SLOVAKIA also fall into the category of "not good enough". "Steppe Man" (from Azerbaijan) is about a man living in a isolated rural area, who searches for a bride after the death of his father. It sounds interesting, but this is purely of cultural interest. The trailer has some lovely scenery, but countless shots of camels chewing cud on the barren steppes make this look very much like a cultural documentary from the former Soviet Union. I've seen "My Dog Killer" (from Slovakia), about a 20-year old neo-Nazi out to impress his gang, his mother who disgraced his family by running away with a Gypsy man who soon abandoned her, and his pit bull. There are a lot of interesting ideas here about racism, extremism and youth alienation in Eastern Europe, but the director doesn't do much with them. Reviews have been middling and despite a burst of energy at the end, it's all too little, too late.

All these films will do much better than the bizarre entry from LITHUANIA, which has sent a minimalist documentary short (62 minutes) for the third time. "Conversations on Serious Topics" is not really a film....Apparently, the director asks a series of penetrating questions to Lithuanian children and films their reactions. The director has boasted that she minimized editing to capture natural reactions. Even if it's well-made, it all sounds like a home movie. It also has possibly the worst trailer in film history. For this, the Lithuanians ignored the first local film to get an international release??


 14. RUSSIA- "Stalingrad"
13. BULGARIA- "Color of the Chameleon"
12. LATVIA- "Mother, I Love You"
11. UKRAINE- "Paradjanov"
For one reason or another, these four films from Bulgaria and the former USSR arme not likely to appeal to the Oscar committee. BULGARIA and LATVIA are hobbled by their genres. LATVIA's "Mother, I Love You" is arguably the best-reviewed of the four and it's said to be a solid film for adolescents. In the film (directed by a man infamous in England for a series of "dine and dash" robberies, rather than his filmmaking ability), a 12-year old with a hard-working single mother is tempted by juvenile delinquency when his friend gives him access to a woman's empty flat in Riga. It's said to be a good film with good performances, but youth-themed films have never scored here. BULGARIA's abdurdist, Kafkaesque black spy comedy "Colour of the Chameleon" combines a whole lot of genres, none of which is likely to appeal much to Oscar. In the film, a spy uses the tricks he learned working for the Communist authorities for his own devices after the fall of the regime. It's said to be quirky and original, but definitely also too weird and too surreal for Oscar.

Surrealist director Sergei Paradjanov is the subject of UKRAINE's biopic "Paradjanov". Paradjanov was Armenian but as a Soviet director, it's my understanding that he made films in what is now Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine. "Paradjanov" looks interesting and some of the older voters may fondly remember references some of his classics like "Colour of Pomegranates" in this film. But I doubt most Hollywood voters will be familiar with his story. Apparently Paradjanov was also a Soviet dissident and possibly also gay (according to this film) and this film spends a lot of time on his battles with Soviet authorities. The film is just too obscure to score here.

RUSSIA's big-budget "Stalingrad" has high production values, a slick Hollywood storyline and is set during World War II, which Oscar loves. Their problem? It's supposed to be a pretty awful film. Though the film has rocked the box-office in Russia and China, foreign critics have mostly savaged this film about a series of ultra-patriotic Soviet soldiers who mostly die defending a house in Stalingrad, one of the most decisive battles in WWII. It's true that some praise the visuals, but that's not enough for a film that most people clearly hate.


10. CROATIA- "Halima's Path"
9. HUNGARY- "The Notebook"
8. CZECH REPUBLIC- "The Don Juans"
7. ALBANIA- "Agon"

Facing an uphill battle are these four obscure films from Central Europe and the Balkans. The CZECH REPUBLIC's sexy opera comedy "The Don Juans" (working title: "Skirt Chasers") looks good on paper- a Czech farce by Oscar-winning director Jiri Menzel- and it's all supposed to be fun....But the trailer has so many topless women, it almost looks like a comedy T&A film from the 1980s, except with middle-aged Czech men instead of high-school kids. I think it's too light and silly to score here.
Grim tales set during and after wartime set the tone for HUNGARY (during World War II) and CROATIA (post-Balkan wars) this year. I originally expected the Hungarians to be a major contender this year, but "The Notebook" has gotten mixed notices for its adaptation of an Agata Kristof novel (thanks to a reader for pointing out this is not the Hungarian spelling og Agatha Christie, as I originally thought!!) about twin boys from the city who are sent to live in the countryside with an abusive aunt to avoid the War. In a series of endless voice-overs, the emotionless boys try to adapt themselves to extreme emotional and physical pain to survive the war. Hungary sent a superior film ten years ago ("Fateless") about a Jewish teen during WWII and if that wasn't nominated, neither will this. "Halima's Path" is about a bereaved mother searching for the remains of her son, killed during the Balkan wars. In order to conceal a family secret, she refuses the DNA testing that should help her to find her son. "Halima" has gotten good reviews, but is probably too small to stand out.

I'm personally rooting for ALBANIA's "Agon" (Dawn) which looks like one of the most interesting films in the race this year. Two Albanian brothers seek work in Greece. The older brother works hard, takes a Greek name, and desperately tries to adapt and succeed. The headstrong younger brother is disillusioned and violent, conforming to many of the stereotypes Albanians are tagged with in the West. Moral dilemmas, bonds of kinship, nationalism, immigration, prostitution, extreme violence and other issues are explored. I can't wait to see it. The one and only review I've been able to find was positive, but zero buzz will probably doom the film to finish well, but well outside the Top Nine.

6. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker"
5. GEORGIA- "In Bloom"
4. POLAND- "Walesa"

 These three films will all have their backers but ultimately I think they will all fail to make it to the next round.

Oscar winners Danis Tanovic and Andrzej Wajda are hoping for one more trip to the podium.....BOSNIA's Tanovic ("No Man's Land") has awakwardly titled docudrama "An Episode in the Life of An Iron Picker", about a Roma couple desperate for cash for the wife's medical treatment. Based on a true story that made headlines in Bosnia, this low-budget film won the Silver Berlin Bear (2nd prize) in Berlin. Tanovic cast the real-life family as themselves with a reported budget of $25,000 US dollars....This spare, minimalist film will be warmly received, but is surely too "small" to make it further. POLAND's Wajda has "Walesa", a large-scale biopic of Lech Wałęsa, the labor leader and former President who is often credited for helping to bring down the Communist system in Poland. This is a confusing one....Oscar likes biopics, but the Foreign Film committee does not. However, Walesa is well-known enough that the story will be familiar to the older-skewing committee. Reviews have been mostly good and Wajda has a strong record in this category, but reviews have said the film is "solid" rather than "great". However, that may work in it's favor....Countless Oscar nominees over the years have been "solid" and certainly not "great". There's definitely a maybe with the large committee.

As for GEORGIA's coming-of-age drama, many critics hail it as an indication of a "Georgian New Wave"....However, Oscar has never cared much for the "Romanian New Wave" either (see next box for "Child's Pose" and its chances), nor do they care for "girl power" in this category. "In Bloom" (Berlinale 2013) has gotten very good reviews for this story of two girls growing up in newly independent Georgia in the 1990s, amidst the civil war with Abkhazia, but I don't think it will touch enough of a nerve here.

3. ROMANIA- "Child's Pose
2. SLOVENIA- "Class Enemy"
1. SERBIA- "Circles"

I have a feeling these three films will be serious contenders for a spot on the shortlist, but remember that the Eastern European countries have netted just three shortlist spots in the past five years (Poland's "In Darkness" was the only Eastern European film to get a nomination). The Easterners could be shut-out again.

Berlinale 2013 winner "Child's Pose" from ROMANIA is said by many to be the most accessible of Romania's much ballyhooed New Wave. In it, a wealthy socialite uses every corrupt connection she has in order to save her aimless 20-something son from taking responsibility for running over a child from a poor family while drunk. The elite committee often saves big Festival films, but they probably did that with Romania's "Beyond the Hills" last year....Will that affect their decision to save Romania two years in a row? The big committee has consistently shown that they don't like the Romanian New Wave and I think "Child's Pose" will just barely miss the cut. I'm a little more confident with SERBIA and "Circles". Director Srdan Golubović made the shortlist in a very competitive year (2007-2008) and deserved to win the Oscar, but AMPAS sadly preferred the dusty "The Counterfeiters" and three other well-made-but-unexciting nominees (I never saw the fifth- "Katyn"- so I can't judge). Golubović has made another moral dilemma drama and it looks great. A Good Samaritan Serb is killed by thugs when he tries to save a Muslim man from an attack. Years later, the Muslim man is a successful doctor in Germany, and one of the thugs life may depend on him. But the story is more complicated than that and I can't wait to see it. I think this will be a serious contender for either committee. Not sure it can make the Top, but I've got my fingers crossed.
SLOVENIA's films are not usually contenders, but I have a funny feeling "Class Enemy" will strike a chord with the elite small committee. Probably the best-reviewed Slovenian film in their independent history, this is a psychological thriller about a tight-knit group of Slovenian students who confront their new German teacher, whom they blame for the suicide of their classmate. "The Class" (France) and the superior "Confessions" (Japan) both explored some of these same themes in very different ways and its possible both were saved by the small committee. It's impossible to know, but Slovenia might just make it.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: 15........2 films are in Bosnian (Bosnia, Croatia) and 2 in Serbian (Montenegro and Serbia), which are really dialects of the same language.....2 in Russian (Russia, Ukraine) and 2 in Romanian (Moldova, Romania), plus one each that are mostly in Albanian, Azeri, Bulgarian, Czech, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak and Slovene. Several of the films are multi-lingual (particularly Albania, Moldova and Russia)

Highest profile film: Berlin Golden Bear winner "Child's Pose" (ROMANIA), followed by Berlin Silver Bear winner, "An Episode in the Life of An Iron Picker" (BOSNIA).

Number of Eastern European countries participating this year: 20 (including Estonia, which is in the Western Europe section)

Number of Eastern European countries that have participated in the past: 21 plus first-time entrants MOLDOVA and MONTENEGRO.

Number of countries opting out: 3....ARMENIA, BELARUS and MACEDONIA.

Grumpy BELARUS hasn't sent a film in 17 years, but Armenia and Macedonia were expected to send films. Oddly, former Oscar nominee MACEDONIA convened a selection committee and reviewed two films ("Balkan Is Not Dead" and "Piano Room"). I don't know much about them but they're both well-rated on IMDB. Not sure what happened with ARMENIA, but I bet they would have picked "Paradjanov" (which is, after all, the biopic of an Armenian filmmaker) if Ukraine had selected either of the other two films on their shortlist.

Cineuropa reported that KOSOVO, the only remaining Eastern European country, was told by AMPAS that they couldn't send a film until they were recognized by the United Nations. If true, this is rather unbelievable since non-member Palestine was recognized in 2003 and Greenland in 2010. The USA has recognized Kosovo since 2008 and the European Film Promotion since 2012 and the UN block is due to Russian political considerations that should have nothing to do with filmmaking awards.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: There are no "slam dunks", but there are a lot of films that will likely finish in the top tier of countries....I'd say 4 have a realistic shot.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I think I did great! 10 correct, including some difficult ones....Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Serbia, and I came super-close with obscure Azerbaijan.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: There's quite a few interesting films, but I'd choose Slovenia's "Class Enemy". I've already seen the downer entry from Slovakia and may get a chance to see the Latvian entry in DC.....

Feature Debuts: 5 films are feature debuts (Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovenia and Ukraine)

Number of ComediesCZECH REPUBLIC has screwball comedy "The Don Juans" while BULGARIA has surreal spy comedy "Colour of the Chameleon".

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries and Horror Films: One documentary- LITHUANIA's terrible-looking minimalist "Conversations About Serious Topics".

Oscar History: Three previous Oscar winners are in the bunch- BOSNIA's Danis Tanovic ("No Man's Land", Best Foreign Film, 2002), CZECH REPUBLIC's Jiri Menzel ("Closely Watched Trains", Best Foreign Film, 1968, plus one other nomination for Foreign Film) and POLAND's Andrzej Wajda (Honorary Oscar for directing, 2000 plus four other Oscar nominations for Foreign Film). Hungary and Russia have also won the award, while Georgia has been nominated.

Four of the other directors have been in the Oscar race before- Croatia's Arsen Anton Ostojić ("A Wonderful Night in Split", "No One's Son"), Hungary's János Szász ("Woyzeck", "The Witman Boys"), Russia's Feodor Bondarchuk ("Ninth Company) and Serbia's Golubović (the brilliant, Oscar shortlisted "The Trap").

Number of Female Directors: Four women are competing this year. Giedrė Beinoriūrė (the first woman to compete for Lithuania), Nana Ekvtimishvili (Georgia), Olena Fetisova (Ukraine) and Mira Fornay (Slovakia). Ekvimishvili and Fetisova co-directed their films with foreign male directors.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 87-year old Andrzej Wajda (Poland) and 75-year old Jiří Menzel (Czech Republic) are the two oldest directors in the competition this year. 28-year old Rok Biček (Slovenia) is the youngest from the Eastern European group.
Familiar Faces: Oddly enough, the most familiar faces are in the Montenegrin entry. American actor Michael Madsen ("Kill Bill", "Sin City") co-stars in "Ace of Spades: Bad Destiny", and Harry Potter fans will also recognize Serbian actor Predrag Bjelac who played Headmaster Karkaroff in "Goblet of Fire". Two of Romania's greatest modern actors co-star in "Child's Pose", namely Luminița Gheorghiu (best known as the paramedic in "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") and Vlad Ivanov (best known as the abortionist "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days"). And Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen
("In A Better World") plays a supporting role as a Nazi in Hungary's "The Notebook".

Serbian actor Nebojša Glogovac is not a household name but he co-starred in one of my favorite Oscar submissions, "Klopka" and again this year in "Circles". Fans of this category may remember Czech actress Libuse Safránková ("The Don Juans") as the female lead in 1997 winner "Kolya". German actor Thomas Kretschmann ("The Pianist") plays the Nazi German lead amidst the battle of "Stalingrad". Actor Michael Ironside (Moldova's "All God's Children") is somewhat well-known in his native Canada. Poland's Robert Więckiewicz co-starred in Oscar nominee "In Darkness" and dozens of other Polish films.

The world is so international these days that most of these people are not from the country they are representing.

Controversies and Changes: CZECH REPUBLIC originally submitted "Burning Bush" by Polish Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland. The Czechs forcefully argued that the film version was significantly different  than the 4-hour miniseries that premiered on Czech TV in February. AMPAS (correctly) disagreed, concluding it had appeared on television before its theatrical run and the Czechs submitted "The Don Juans" instead. RUSSIA's big-budget 3D WWII drama "Stalingrad" muscled its way into a wide-open field at the last minute, by staging a one-theatre run prior to its scheduled premiere.

Last year's race: I saw 7 of last year's 20 films from Eastern Europe (including the Estonian entry which I include in Western Europe this year). The best of a weak lot was MACEDONIA's historical football drama "The Third Half" (B). Serbia (B-), Ukraine (C+) and Azerbaijan (C+) sent rather average films, while the Baltic films from Estonia (D+), Hungary (D+) and Lithuania (D) were pretty bad.

Next up: The 19 candidates from Asia and Oceania- Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand


Spartak said...

Fisrt of all, a question, do you know which version of "Stalingrad" is shown to AMPAS members (at the screenings) 3D or 2D (I already have a 2D version, but since during next 2 or 3 weeks, I'm going to buy 3D TV set, I'm thinkig maybe I should wait a bit and watch it in 3D, never mind)?
Latvian is rather average film (actually, it's about whose one small lie leads him to bigger lies and then everything begin to mix up) and as you have mentioned, it suits much more adolescents.
Slovakia is terrible, so Georgia does (in spite the good reviews, I'd say that "In Bloom" is longer then it should be, with the "the plot point" happens only towards the 2\3 of the film and also I had feeling that Nana Ekvtimishvilli hasn't decide if she wants to show the girls' story or rather a film about social-economic problems in post-Soviet era).
Also, I don't find Bosnian title awakward, people's life consist of episode and it's on of those "episodes" in the life of a particular man. As you can get, I did like, saying that the docustyle works exellently at this films.
Poland, Romania and Hungary (I'm a bit surpised that you haven't heard about the book) are good films, but both of them have to many "but" to became "great".
My favoutire film from those 19 (I've seen 8 of and till the deadline, I will catch at least 3 of them: Russia, Ukraine and Croatia).

P.S. Luxembourg is availiable in Itunes only through Australian, Canadian or French shops...
Croatia is also availiable on DVD with English subtitles (but it's a hell task to find one, a good thing that my local dvd library got it).

s rs said...

Serbia film Circles is nominate for Satellite Award for Best Foreign Language Film.