Thursday, October 22, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 21 Candidates from the Eastern Bloc

So this year, 81 films have been accepted into the Foreign Oscar competition, the second-highest number ever! 

As usual, I'll be dividing the candidates into four global regions:

LATE OCTOBER- The Eastern Bloc Countries (21)
EARLY NOVEMBER- The Asia-Pacific Region (inc. Turkey) (20)
LATE NOVEMBER- Canada + Western Europe (inc. Israel) (20)
EARLY DECEMBER- Latin America, Africa and the Arab World (20)

Lots of interesting trends this year…We’ve got a huge number of movies about borders, migration and the immigrant experience (Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Serbia, Switzerland) as well as a number of films exploring indigenous and/or traditional cultures (Australia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan and Venezuela). Those three Latin countries have films that are mostly in indigenous languages; not Spanish. 

We’re also seeing the debuts of a lot of relatives of famous directors. The helmers from Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan and Mexico are trying to make their names in the shadow of famous relatives. 

So, first…the Eastern Bloc countries (including Central Asia)

Last year, the countries of the Eastern Bloc got an amazing four spots on the Oscar shortlist (up from 2, 1, 1, 0 and 2 in the previous five years). However, they aren’t likely to repeat that feat this year, although the official front-runner (“Son of Saul”) could allow them to win two years in a row. Most of this year’s Eastern Bloc films have little or no chance to be nominated.


21. KOSOVO- “Babai”
20. SLOVAKIA- “Koza” (The Goat)
19. GEORGIA- “Moira”
18. SLOVENIA- “Drevo” (The Tree)
17. LATVIA- “Modris”

These five films with one-word-titles from some of Europe’s smaller countries have little chance to advance in this year’s competition. But as I always say, the Oscars provide a platform for these films and their directors to be seen and talked about by international critics.

Among the least likely are the family dramas from the ex-Yugoslav republics of Kosovo and Slovenia, both of which premiered at Karlovy Vary. KOSOVO's second-ever  Oscar submission “Babai” is about a young Kosovar boy who runs away to try and find his father who is working abroad in Germany. It has won some small awards but it is said to be a fairly average film from a country just beginning to develop a domestic film industry. SLOVENIA's “The Tree” has gotten mostly positive reviews but critics frequently use words like “subtle” and “challenging”, i.e. unlikely to appeal to Oscar. It’s a grim story told in three parts, about a family in the aftermath of some sort of accident; each is from a different POV- the mother and her two children.
Latvia, Georgia and Slovakia have chosen minimalist character studies of the underclasses. LATVIA's “Modris” is about a disaffected teen barely making an effort to get through life, getting involved with petty delinquency and developing a serious gambling problem. SLOVAKIA has chosen a gritty docudrama (“Koza”, aka “The Goat”) which played at Berlinale; it's about a Roma boxer who once competed in the Olympics but is now living in poverty and attempting a career comeback.  GEORGIA's “Moira” (San Sebastian) is about a man who returns to his family in their seaside home after getting out of prison.  The film is said to be "formulaic" and has failed to get very good reviews. Georgia probably would have done better to choose something else. These grim films can all be counted out. 

16. POLAND- “11 Minutes” 
15. MONTENEGRO- “You Carry Me”
14. RUSSIA- “Sunstroke”
13. MACEDONIA- “Honey Night”

It’s unusual for defending champion POLAND and Oscar superpower RUSSIA to be ranked so low down the list (they were both among the five nominees last year). However, the films they selected are just supposed to be really bad. “11 Minutes”, a fast-paced and visually slick thriller following eleven quirky characters, looks like great fun. Unfortunately, reviews have been terrible and everyone I know who has actually seen it has told me they hated it. It was the one film I was unable to get tickets for at the Busan Film Festival so I'm afraid I'll have to reserve my own opinion. As for Oscar winner Nikita Mikhalkov’s bloated three-hour patriotic drama “Sunstroke”- set in the waning days of the Russian Empire in Crimea- is said to be a mess. Bad reviews will condemn these two to being also-rans. 

The former Yugoslav republics of Macedonia and Montenegro didn’t have much to choose from this year. MACEDONIA had only one film submitted for consideration whereas MONTENEGRO ended up choosing a majority-Croatian film due to a lack of suitable candidates. Neither film has made much of an impact on audiences. “You Carry Me” is a Croatian take on “Crash”, focusing on a number of characters with intersecting lives. While some clearly like the film, most refer to it as an overlong two-and-a-half-hour soap opera. With "Wolf Totem" disqualified for lack of Chinese input, I'm confused how "You Carry Me" is even on the list. As for Macedonia’s “Honey Night”, it could be an amazing film......However, the film has zero buzz, political overtones that may confuse an American audience and there's virtually no information about it anywhere online. It's about a national political scandal coinciding with a couple’s marital problems on their 10th wedding anniversary. 

12. SERBIA- “Enclave”
11. CROATIA- “The High Sun”
10. LITHUANIA- “Summer of Sangaile”
9. BOSNIA- “Our Everyday Story”

Three of these four films examine the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars from the point of view of each of the three main beligerents. Whereas they are all good films, they lack the “oomph” necessary to get to the next round. Despite the highest IMDB rating of all the Eastern films, SERBIA's “Enclave” may also be too political. It looks at the relationship between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs,  who found themselves de facto living in a foreign country after Kosovo declared independence. The film won the Audience Award in Moscow, but is certain to appeal more to the Serbian audience who feel emotional pain at the idea of losing the province. CROATIA selected “The High Sun” which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes and Best Croatian Film in Pula for its story of three interethnic love stories, set in 1991, 2001 and 2011. The three sets of lovers are played by the same set of actors (a very interesting, but also potentially confusing gimmick). The film is good and it has a lot to say about ethnic conflict, but the chapters vary in their quality (I agree the first is the best). The title of BOSNIA's “Our Everyday Story” says it all- it’s a film about a modern-day, middle-class Bosnian family with modern-day, middle-class problems, most notably the cancer diagnosis of the family matriarch. Though it will likely score highest of the seven ex-Yugoslav republics this year, I just have a hard time believing that this quiet, true-to-life family drama can get the scores necessary to advance.

As for LITHUANIA, they’ve selected teen lesbian romance “The Summer of Sangaile”, which won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival. Critics have loved this sleeper hit about two teenaged girls who fall in love at an air show. However, the Foreign Film committee is rarely kind to LGBT-themed films or youth-oriented films, so I think “Summer” and its lesbian protagonists will also find themselves out of luck.

8. ALBANIA- “Bota”
7. KAZAKHSTAN- “The Stranger”
6. ESTONIA- "1944"

These three films may have their fans but likely will struggle to get noticed. 

ESTONIA has chosen a patriotic war drama (“1941”) that highlights the uniquely complicated situation facing the three Baltic republics during World War II. Other than Hungary (see below), Estonia is the only country that has selected a WWII film, when Estonia was invaded by both the Nazis and the Soviets. Many Estonians were drafted and/or volunteered by sides, resulting in Estonians fighting other Estonians for causes they may not have even agreed with to preserve their nationhood. AMPAS likes war films, but this one is said to be very nationalistic and may suffer from some rather obscure history.

KAZAKHSTAN’s “The Stranger” is the third film by Yermek Tursunov to represent Kazakhstan since 2009. "The Stranger" is about a drama set during Communist times about a man who attempts to resist Sovietization and retain traditional ways. Tursunov was shortlisted for the shortlisted "Kelin" (which certainly deserved an Oscar nod) but response to "The Stranger" has been divided. Many find the film to be confusing and off-putting. 

That brings us to the delightful "Bota" from ALBANIA, about a married man and his two female employees working at a cafe in one of the remotest regions of Albania. Sad, funny and with beautiful music, the film's tagline is "Nothing happens. Everything happens." Events unfold slowly but the film is never boring. And without spoiling the ending, your emotions end up being pulled in two directions. Good storytelling made this (as usual) a great entry from one of Europe'a least-known film industries. Honestly, I know the film is too "small" to make it to the next round, but films like this are one of the reasons I try to see all the film on the list every year. Good luck! 

5. KYRGYZSTAN- “Heavenly Nomadic”
4. ROMANIA- "Aferim!"
3. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Home Care”

I'm not predicting that any of these three films will be nominated come January, but one of them could potentially surprise, particularly if the quiet CZECH tragicomedy of “Home Care” resonates with the older voters on the large committee. It’s difficult to make a funny movie about such a sad subject (a wife and mother dying of cancer) but the Czechs have a talent for deftly balancing comedy and tragedy. In the film, a rural Czech nurse who is passionately devoted to both her husband and troublesome patients is stunned to learn that she is ill herself, and embarks on the road to self-discovery and closure. However, I ultimately think this low-key film will be too "small" to ultimately make the finals.

ROMANIA’s road movie “Aferim!” is about a 19th century constable and his son searching for a runaway Gypsy slave in the wilds of a multi-ethnic province of the Ottoman Empire. It’s all very witty and clever with a shocking ending but the puns and witticisms (though very well-translated) may lose something in the translation. The former Soviet republic of KYRGYZSTAN always sends a good film and has likely come closer to an Oscar nomination several times; “Heavenly Nomadic” is said to be a sweet, likable film about a nomadic family living on the steppes. It will score well with the larger committee but it will be almost impossible for this small film to make the Top Six there.

2. BULGARIA- “The Judgement”
1. HUNGARY- “Son of Saul”

Everyone is already talking about HUNGARY's Auschwitz-set drama “Son of Saul” as this year’s Oscar front-runner. The glowing reviews from Cannes frequently hailed its “original look” at the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a Sonderkommando- a little-known group of Jewish prisoners tasked with disposing of the dead. The film left Cannes with Grand Prix. We all know that AMPAS loves any film mentioning the Holocaust (how else to explain the win of the mediocre “The Counterfeiters” a few years back) so “Saul” is as close to a lock as there is.

Conversely, nobody is talking about BULGARIA's “The Judgment”, a morality play about a widower living with his angry teenaged son in Bulgaria's border region, who turns to human trafficking to try and make ends meet. Director Stephan Komandarev was the first and only Bulgarian to make it to the shortlist (for “Salvation is Big and the World Lurks Around the Corner”, which similarly had little-to-no-buzz that year). Perfectly timed to coincide with the current refugee crisis in Europe, “The Judgment” will likely do well with Oscar voters….It just remains to be seen if it can make the Top Nine. It will be on the bubble.  

Now the Statistics:

Number of Eastern Bloc countries that have participated in the past: 27

Number of Eastern Bloc countries participating this year:  21

Number of debuts: None.

Number of countries opting out:  Six. The most notable absence this year is UKRAINE, which had some complicated problems involving their selection committee. I’m not sure of the whole story but apparently half the members quit after last year’s controversial selection of “The Guide” over “The Tribe” and Ukraine was either late getting a new committee approved by AMPAS, or their proposed committee was rejected. In any case, the Ukrainians were rumored to be sending “Brothers: The Final Confession” or “Battle of Sevastopol” and officially asked AMPAS for a deadline extension to settle their internal problems. But ultimately, they didn’t make the list.

The only other surprise was AZERBAIJAN, which has sent films the past three years and who had baity nationalist drama “Black January” eligible. As for MOLDOVA, I don’t think they had any eligible films this year. As usual, Armenia (last submitted in 2012), Belarus (1996) and Tajikistan (2005) are also absent.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 12 out of 21! Not bad- Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Russia and Serbia. And I would have gotten Macedonia too if I’d known that “Liberation of Skopje” wouldn’t be ready in time.

Already Seen: Albania, Croatia, Czech Republic, Romania

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: KYRGYZSTAN has a history of sending absolutely wonderful village dramas (“Wedding Chest”, “Tengri”) so I would definitely choose “Heavenly Nomadic”

Feature Debuts:      9. The directors from Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia and Slovenia are also making their feature debuts. The ladies from Bosnia and Montenegro co-directed “Some Other Stories”, but since that film was really a series of five short films from five Yugoslav republics, I think they should be considered to be making their debuts too.

Number of Female Directors:  5 - Iris Elezi (Albania), Ivona Juka (Montenegro) and Sonja Prosenc (Slovenia) are the first-ever female helmers to represent their countries. They’re joined by Alanté Kavaïté (Lithuania) and Ines Tanović (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  77-year old Jerzy Skolimowski of Poland is the oldest European director this year. 32-year old Juris Kursietis of Latvia is the youngest from the Eastern Bloc.    

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  17 primary languages, including four in the Serbo-Croatian dialects and two in Albanian, plus one each in Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak and Slovene.

Due to a large number of films about historical invasions and occupations (Estonia, Hungary, Romania) as well as borders and migration (Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia), there are a lot of multi-lingual films from the region this year, adding a bit of German and Turkish into the mix.

Number of Comedies:  Romania comes closest, but I wouldn’t say any of the films are comedies. 

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films:   Slovakia chose what you’d call a “docudrama”.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many….maybe four or five.    

Highest profile film:  Definitely Hungary’s “Son of Saul” which won the Jury Grand Prize at Cannes. None of the others come close.  

Oscar History:  Five directors have been in the race before. Nikita Mikhalkov of Russia is certainly the most successful. He won the Oscar for “Burnt by the Sun”, got two more nominations for “Close to Eden” and “12” and was also selected two more times to represent Russia for “Burnt by the Sun 2:Citadel” and “The Barber of Siberia”. Kazakhstan’s Ermek Tursunov is on his third try after “The Old Man” (Shal) and “Kelin”, which made the 9-film shortlist. Bulgaria’s Stephan Komandarev was also shortlisted once, for “The World is Big and Salvation Lies Around the Corner”. Macedonia’s Ivo Trajkov (“The Great Water”, “Wingless”) and Croatia’s Dalibor Matanic (“Fine Dead Girls”) have also been in the race before.  

Of the 21 countries, five have won the Oscar (Bosnia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Russia), four more have been nominated,  three have been shortlisted and the other nine are waiting for their first official nominations as independent countries.

Best & Worst Decisions: Albania made the best decision by rejoining the race and sending charming drama “Bota”. Last year, a selection committee met and failed to send either of two competing films. Entering the race will help publicize this wonderful hidden gem. After two Georgian directors made the shortlist last year, Georgia probably made the worst decision by sending the untested “Moira”, which has not been well-reviewed.

Controversies and Changes:     No big controversies this year, although some grumbled that the selection of the three-hour “Sunstroke” was due more to Nikita Mikhalkov’s political connections and the film’s emphasis on Russian ownership of Crimea, rather than the quality of the filmmaking. And I’m surprised there was no controversy over the nationality of “You Carry Me”, a Croatian film representing Montenegro.

Omissions:        The most unfortunate omission this year was Hungary’s critically-acclaimed black comedy “Liza, the Fox Fairy”. Hungary is frequently willing to send unconventional films (“Taxidermy”) to the Oscars, but faced with a potentially Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, the quirky “Liza” just couldn’t compete.

Also doomed by heavy internal competition: morality tale “The Lesson” from Bulgaria, biopic “Gods” from Poland and dramedy “The Treasure” from Romania, while the political tone of Russia’s “The Fool” could not have helped. And Kazakhstan’s Ermek Tursunov defeated himself when “The Stranger” defeated the final film in his Kazakhstan trilogy, “Kenzhe”.

Familiar Faces:  There are no superstar actors in this batch, although many actors are famous in their own countries. Two actors of note for followers of this category are Luminita Gheorghiu (“Child’s Pose”, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) who plays a very small role as a village wife in “Aferim!” (Romania), and Bosnian actor Emir Hadzihafizbegovic who, by my count, is making his 14th co-starring role in an Oscar submission with “Our Everyday Story” (Bosnia).

Last year's race:   Last year, the Eastern Bloc got four spots on the 9-film Oscar shortlist, as well as three of the five Oscar nominees. I saw all four plus the nominees from Croatia, Hungary and Lithuania. My favorite was Estonia’s “Tangerines”, though the technical artistry of Hungary’s “White God” was most impressive. Final grades: Croatia (B-), Estonia (B+), Georgia (C-), Hungary (B+), Lithuania (C+), Poland (B-), Russia (B).