Tuesday, November 29, 2016

2017 Foreign Oscar Predictions- EASTERN EUROPE

And here are the 21 films from Eastern Europe. While I think may of these films may do well in the rankings, I'm probably going to predict that this group gets no spots on the shortlist this year. However, I have my fingers crossed for "Eva Nova", from SLOVAKIA....Possibly the best film I've seen this year and available (legally!) for free via FestivalScope!

21. ARMENIA "Earthquake" 

Sadly we'll never know how Armenia's big-budget disaster film would have played with the Academy because AMPAS decided to make the Armenians (and the Afghans) the victims of its unevenly applied rules regarding nationality. The Armenians appealed the decision and I expected it to be accepted (Austria's appeal was allowed for their German film....and Armenia won an appeal many years ago with "Vodka Lemon") but AMPAS decided that this Armenian film in Armenian and Russian directed by an Armenian, set in Armenia and about one of the most important events in Armenian history was in fact not an Armenian film. 

20. KOSOVO- "Home Sweet Home"
19. SLOVENIA- "Houston! We Have A Problem!"
18. LATVIA- "Dawn"
17. LITHUANIA- "Seneca's Day"
16. UKRAINE- "Ukrainian Sheriffs"

These five films are just here to represent their countries, and have no real chance at getting an Oscar nomination. It is my hope that the Oscar competition will help get their films seen and will help put their countries on the world cinematic map. 

All five come from nations that don't produce many films each year and all suffer from a number of handicaps. Documentary "Ukrainian Sheriffs" and mockumentary "Houston, We Have a Problem!" are said to be entertaining but lightweight. SLOVENIA's "Houston" was the surprise winner of the 2016 Slovenian Film Awards but its gleeful conspiracy theory about Yugoslavia's secret contributions to the NASA space program at the height of the Cold War is said by many reviewers to be more suited to a short film rather than a feature. Documentary "Ukrainian Sheriffs" was also a surprise choice to represent UKRAINE (beating two more heavily favored fiction features in a three-film race). It follows two small-town sheriffs in a remote town in Ukraine as developments whose problems spiral from simple village problems to more serious ones as the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine worsens over the course of filming. Reviews have been warm but the film will be unable to break out of the documentary ghetto. Ukraine's selection committee was plagued by internal problems last year, and were unable to get their act together to submit a film, so it's good to have them back in the race with a good movie. 

Newly-independent KOSOVO is also just happy to be here and recognized as an independent state (the UN is still deadlocked roughly 50-50 on that issue) and has sent "Home Sweet Home" as its third national submission. "Home Sweet Home" is about a man who returns to his family home years after being reported killed in battle during Kosovo's war of independence. It's an interesting idea, but reviews have not been entirely kind with many describing it as a missed opportunity. As for LATVIA, they've also chosen a divisive film, namely the B&W "Dawn", based on a Soviet urban myth of a patriotic Young Pioneer who "courageously" informed Soviet authorities about his own anti-Communist parents and who was lynched by the town as a result. Director Laila Pakalnina is one of Latvia's most famous directors but she has been passed over again and again by the Latvian Academy. The selection committee noted that "Dawn" is an "an intellectual, not emotionaI enjoyment" while the Hollywood Reporter's mostly positive review noted that some elements of the film "will test the patience" of viewers....Seems divisive and unlikely. 

LITHUANIA has selected Baltic co-production "Seneca's Day", which is probably the most obscure film on the list. This story follows a group of friends on the eve of Lithuania's independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 (Lithuania was the first republic to try to secede and they suffered greatly for it) and again 25 years later in the current-day. There's no buzz, no awards, no major festival appearances and no reason to think it will be selected. 

15. BULGARIA- "Losers"
14. ALBANIA- "Chromium"
13. CZECH REPUBLIC- "Lost in Munich"
12. ROMANIA- "Sieranevada"

I also don't out too much hope for these four films. 

The films from Albania and Bulgaria have gotten fairly good reviews for their coming-of-age stories of post-Communist teen angst, but I don't see them coming into play here. The B&W "Losers" from BULGARIA won the Grand Prize at the 2015 Moscow International Film Festival (how many movies are in Black and White this year?!?!?) for its story of four aimless teens but it has hardly been heard of since then. ALBANIA's "Chromium" (Karlovy Vary) is said to be an improvement on Bujar Alimani's 2011 submission "Amnesty". It follows a disaffected teen living in a rural mining town, and his stormy relationship with his mute mother and the man who comes in to her life. 

The films from the more established Czechs and Romanians are also unlikely choices. The CZECH REPUBLIC selected the weird, whimsical comedy "Lost in Munich", a film-within-a-film about an elderly parrot who holds the key. There are lots of topical issues here that American audiences and filmmakers will be able to relate to- the power of the media, distortions of history, the difficulties of financing and making a film- but there are also a lot of allusions to history and the Czech national character which will cause audiences to lose interest (as I sometimes did). As usual, many Oscar predictions are including ROMANIA as a contender, but I assure you it's not. Oscar has shown that they have no interest in Romania or its New Wave (The shortlisted "Beyond the Hills" was an anomaly and didn't make the Final Five) and "Sieranevada" (Cannes)- a three-hour, slow, plodding examination of a large family preparing for a funeral- has mixed reviews and is certainly not as warmly loved as "Death of Mr. Lazarescu", "Child's Pose" or "5 Months" which all notably failed to make the shortlist. 

11. HUNGARY- "Kills on Wheels"
10. MONTENEGRO- "The Black Pin"
9. CROATIA- "On the Other Side"
8. POLAND- "Afterimage"

So first off, POLAND is only going to get nominated if the Academy wants to honor the late Andrzej Wajda...."Afterimage" is a cerebral biopic of an obscure artist (at least in the West) who struggled under the censorship of the Communist era. Nobody says it's a bad film, but it's creaky and old-fashioned and biopics of unknown people rarely score well here. The way the voting is done is this category, you give the Large Committee gives the film a score....so you don't vote for Wajda, you give the film a number grade. And I think the Elite Committee will want to save so many films that "Afterimage" will be an afterthought. 

Neighboring HUNGARY (Karlovy Vary) has selected another bizarre film...this time a crime thriller about a group of handicapped youths who end up as hit men. It's certainly a unique way to revamp the tired old "underdogs can do anything!" genre, and critics point out that the film has a fresh new voice. But although reviews are good, there's no indication they're good enough. 

Finally we have two more films from the former Yugoslavia, each showcasing the region's two favorite genres- a drama about the wars of the 1990s and a sardonic, black comedy of village life. "On the Other Side" from CROATIA is probably one of the region's better "post-war" efforts, about a woman who receives a phone call out-of-the-blue from the estranged ex-husband who abandoned the family during the civil wars and who stands accused of serious war crimes. It's a psychological thriller with a fantastic lead actress performance but films about Balkan politics haven't been recognized in 15 years. Tiny MONTENEGRO had only two eligible films this year, but I think "The Black Pin" is going to be an audience pleaser though probably won't do well enough to make the Final Nine. It's a clever black comedy about a grumpy Orthodox priest who pisses off his local village by refusing to sell church land, thereby ruining the community's chance at a big real estate payout. The Balkan countries do dark comedy quite well and this is the film I most want to see this year. It's definitely Montenegro's best-ever chance at a nomination....though that's not saying much. 

7. ESTONIA- "Mother"
6. SERBIA- "Train Driver's Diary"
5. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- "Death in Sarajevo"

It's also usually unwise to entirely count out Danis Tanovic who won this award for his debut feature "No Man's Land". Representing BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, "Death in Sarajevo" is a talky drama about a large number of characters working at a dysfunctional hotel preparing for an EU-sponsored event commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the start of WWI (which, as history students will remember, broke out in Sarajevo....then a provincial city of Austria-Hungary). It won two awards in Berlin, but critics have been divided and it's probably not good enough for an elite save. 

If Bosnia is modeling itself on "European arthouse" ESTONIA's "Mother" is channeling the Coen Brothers with this darkly comic mystery about a devoted mother taking full-time care of her comatose son who was shot by an unknown assailant who likely comes from her close-knit local community. Probably too small to get noticed, but one of this year's more interesting entries. Also in the "dark comedy" mold, we have "Train Driver's Diary" from SERBIA, which dwells on the fact that Serbian train drivers statistically kill 15-20 numbers of people during their careers. Comedy often loses something in translation and the Balkan's wicked sense of tragicomedy hasn't found favor with the Academy since the aforementioned "No Man's Land" fifteen years ago. Still, this clever Serbian film has enough interesting characters and good will to make it somewhat mainstream and there are clearly some fans out there....

4. RUSSIA- "Paradise"
3. MACEDONIA- "The Liberation of Skopje"

These WWII films are a bit more Oscar's cup of tea.....Oscar loves watching children struggle with the horrors of war, so "The Liberation of Skopje" (MACEDONIA) and its 11-year old protagonist could be in with a chance. Though few have seen the film, this historical drama is supposed to be very good and fairly relatable though I worry that Balkan politics and intrigue (which was particularly complicated during WWII in Macedonia, with German and Bulgarian occupiers) will confuse some viewers. But they will understand the divided loyalties of a young boy whose father goes off to fight the Nazis while his mother becomes involved with a German officer. It could surprise. 

RUSSIA has also selected a baity World War II drama (in B&W), about a Russian noblewoman jailed in Nazi-occupied France for helping Jewish refugees. Though reviews have been mixed, it won Best Director in Venice and is said to be a technically impressive film. The film's grim story, abstract style and odd "interview-style" scenes are not popular however, reviews remind me of Hungary's "The Notebook" which was shortlisted a few years ago despite the fact that nobody liked it very much either. 

2. GEORGIA- "House of Others"
1. SLOVAKIA- "Eva Nova"

I actually don't think any of the Eastern European films will make the shortlist, but if any of them do, I predict it will be one of these two well-reviewed debut features from the newly independent states. 

The ghostly "House of Others" from GEORGIA won the East of the West Award at Karlovy Vary and has gotten great reviews for its story of a Georgian family forced to flee ethnic cleansing in Abkhazia. This obscure secessionist conflict has already sparked Oscar's fancy twice (with the Oscar-nominated "Tangerines" and shortlisted "Corn Island") and the atmosphere film reminds me a bit of  "Corn Island". 

As for "Eva Nova", it only has one thing going for it- it's one of the best films of the year. However, we see year after year that "quality" does not necessarily get you a spot in the next round and "Eva Nova" has the added disadvantage of having a lead character that is a woman (a brave Oscar-worthy performance by veteran actress Emília Vásáryová. It's a fairly simple story- an aging star and recovering alcoholic tries to make amends with her estranged son- but it's a brilliant film. Based on quality alone, I'm predicting a surprise #1 ranking in the region but no shortlist spot. Alas, we'll never know!

Ultimately, these two films are probably too small to make it. 

Now the Statistics:

Number of countries from these regions who have participated in the past: 24

Number of countries participating this year:  20

Number of debuts: Zero

Number of countries opting out:  Poor ARMENIA was unfairly disqualified for their big-budget epic “Earthquake”.  Not sure why AZERBAIJAN failed to send a film, as they had quite a few to choose from. MOLDOVA probably didn’t have anything eligible (though the new comedy “Eastern Business” premiered in October 2016 and will be eligible next year); BELARUS hasn’t sent anything since 1996.

Already Seen: Only 2- The films from the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic

Film I'm most looking forward to seeing
:  Dark comedy “The Black Pin” from Montenegro! Looks great!

Feature Debuts:  Seven. Faton Bajraktari (Kosovo), Roman Bondarchuk (Ukraine), Rusudan Glurjidze (Georgia), Ivan Marinovic (Montenegro), Marko Skop (Slovakia)  and Ziga Virc (Slovenia) plus veteran actor Rade Serbedzija (now representing his newly adopted country of Macedonia).

Number of Female DirectorsTHREE. Kadri Kõusaar (Estonia), Rusudan Glurjidze (Georgia) and Laila Pakalnina (Latvia)

Oldest and Youngest Directors: It would be hard to beat 90-year old Andrzej Wajda of Poland who passed away in October (and who was probably only chosen because “Afterimage” was clearly going to be his last film). The youngest is 29-year old Slovenian director Žiga Virc.

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:   A lot of the Eastern European films are multilingual (i.e. Bosnia, Czech Republic, Macedonia, Russia and Slovenia), reflecting the area’s history and changing borders. But four films are in Serbo-Croatian, two are in Albanian, with one each mostly in Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovene and Ukrainian
Number of Comedies: Czech Republic, Montenegro and Serbia have selected comedies, and some might add Estonia as well.

Number of Animated Films and Documentaries:  Ukraine has selected a documentary and so has Slovenia....or have they??  J

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Hmm…Not many. Four at most and that’s pushing it. 

Highest profile film: This is a pretty low-key lot, but Romanian New Wave “Sieranevada” (Cannes) and Russia’s “Paradise” (Best Director, Venice) have gotten the most traction.

Oscar History:   Obviously the biggest contender here is the late Andrzej Wajda who represented Poland nine times, winning four Oscar nominations plus an Honorary Award in 2000 for lifetime achievement. Danis Tanovic of Bosnia is also an Oscar winner, having won for “No Man’s Land”. He is now representing his country for a record fourth time with “Death in Sarajevo”.

Bujar Alimani (“Amnesty”), Andrei Konchalovsky (“House of Fools”), Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”), Kristijonas Vildziunas (“Back to Your Arms”) and Petr Zelenka (“The Karamazovs”) have each represented their country once before while Croatian director Danilo Serbedzija (“72 Days”) is now representing Macedonia. Zrinko Ogresta of Croatia has had his films selected twice (“Red Dust” and “Washed Out”).

Hoping to make the shortlist for the first time are:  Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Slovenia and Ukraine plus Slovakia which won the Oscar for "A Shop on Main Street" as part of Czechoslovakia.

Best & Worst Decisions: Croatia, Georgia, Macedonia and Montenegro made wise choices while the worst decision was Poland which arranged an early qualifying release for the creaky “Afterimage” to honor a dying Wajda, when “The Last Family” could have done so much better.  

Controversies and Changes:   Armenia unfairly disqualified! The Armenians decided to return to the Oscar race after sending only two films in the past decade. They announced a three-film shortlist and selected big-budget “Earthquake” as their contender. AMPAS mysteriously and unfairly disqualified them for having insufficient creative control over this Russian co-production while Austria was reinstated even though their film was far less “Austrian”. The director of “Earthquake” is Armenian-born, Russian-based Sarik Andreasyan. It seems AMPAS’ objection may have been that the crew had a lot of ethnic Armenians who may not have actually held Armenian citizenship. Ridiculous, especially when they accepted Austria’s appeal.
Most Notable Omissions:  As I mentioned, acclaimed biopic “The Last Family” from Poland was considered a real contender. Many were disappointed that Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” (which won Best Director at Cannes) failed to be selected to rep Romania.
Familiar Faces:   No world-famous people, though ex-Yugoslav stars Rade Serbedzija (“Liberation of Skopje”) and Lazar Ristovski (“Train Driver’s Diary”, “On the Other Side”) will be familiar to watchers of this category.

Last year's race:   I only got to see four of last year’s films including the equally charming drama “Bota” from Albania (B+) and road movie “Aferim!” from Romania (B+). I also managed to see the truly terrible “Summer of Sangaile” (D) from Lithuania and the rather average “The High Sun” (B) from Croatia. I still haven’t seen “Son of Saul”. Too grim. 


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Spartak said...

Thanks for the post!

Slovenia - It's a documentary, actually 2 documentaries: one about Yugo's space program and 2nd one about one of the scientists, who had to abandon his family and meets his daughter for the first time in 40 years. While the 1st one is witty, the 2nd one is boring and feels made-off. So yeah, it could work much better as a short film.

Bulgaria- Another film about youth, it doesn't stand out except being B&W and I'm not sure that it's an advantage.

Czech Republic - I totally agree with you (this time :).

Romania - I was surprised with Romanian choice, after all Mungiu has brought Romania closer to the Oscar than anybody else. Even more after watching "Graduation"... Personally, I dislike "Sieranevada", I find it unstable directed. While its camera movements tries to fake "accidental observer", the dialogues starts exactly in time, when the characters gets in the frame and so on...

Poland - Probably, the 1st time this year that I'm completely disagree with you. I don't think that one should know Wladyslaw Strzeminski to enjoy and understand the film. "Afterimage" is about a struggle of an unconventional artist in totalitarian regime. I haven't seen "The Last Family", but "Afterimage" is more than worthy submission.

Hungary - It's a comedy, at least it tries to be one. But comedy is about timing and in "Kills on Wheels" all the jokes comes "too early" or "too late". Also it doesn't go far enough with its original comics structure that could pull it off. And if there's an omission, probably it's this one. They should have chosen "The Wednesday Child".

Croatia - What a strange film. Almost every single frame is shot behind an obstacle (window, curtain and etc'). And its screenplay is too obscure.

Bosnia & Herzegovina - I supposed that Tanovic has surprised a lot of predictors, when he managed to bring a touching, but very minimalist "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" into the shortlist. But I think that "Death is Sarajevo" is another story, I appreciate a lot this film, but I think it's too local to make Academy vote for it.

Russia - "The Notebook" is also another case. First of all, it was based on an acclaimed novel. Secondly, even being quite a violent film, it's much more cinematically friendly film. As far as I remember its plot was easier to follow, while "Paradise" structure is a bit strange. While maybe the interviews have a high importance for philosophical definition of values and ethics during wartime, it makes the film too long. Also it tries to hard to be an important art-house film: B&W, unusual AR an etc'. I'd call its ending over-dramatic and even ridiculous. I wish that Russia has gone with "The Student".

Georgia - "Tangerines" and "Corn Islands" is a way better than "House of Others". "House of Others" is not touching enough as "Tangerines" and not symbolic/poetic enough as "Corn Islands". It tries to contain almost every possible war theme: females, refugees, hunger, first love and on and on and on, but the result is somehow unsatisfying.

Slovakia - "Eva Nova" is not bad, bit it left me indifferent and probably it's the worst thing that can happen to a film.