Saturday, July 15, 2017

FOREIGN FILM PREDICTIONS (Eastern Europe)

Here are my predictions for the 24 countries of Eastern Europe. With the official recognition of Kosovo by AMPAS in 2014, every country in the region has participated at least once. All countries have submitted a film at least once in the past three years, except Belarus.


1. ALBANIA- “Distant Angels” Albania’s front-runner is clearly the recently premiered “Distant Angels”, the first film by Gjergj Xhuvani (“Slogans”, “East West East”) in eight years, and the first Albanian-language film in seven years of local movie star and heartthrob Nik Xhelilaj (now based in Berlin). "Distant Angels" focuses on the war in neighboring Kosovo in the 1990s, and its effect on the ethnic Albanians making up the majority of the people there. This is an issue close to the heart of the Albanian people and it's a shoo-in to represent Albania, unless it’s claimed by neighboring Kosovo, which co-produced the film. The only films that could potentially challenge are historical drama “The Delegation” (which hasn’t premiered yet) and murder mystery “Shadows”. But “Distant Angels” should get this easily. 


2. ARMENIA- “The Last Wish” Armenia tried to rejoin the Oscar race last year with the exciting disaster movie “Earthquake”. In a bizarre decision, AMPAS determined that the film, in Armenian and Russian, which had an Armenian director, a mostly Armenian crew,  and was about one of the most important moments in Armenian history, was a majority Russian film. It certainly was a Russian co-production, but I can think of a dozen recent submissions from every region of the world that were “less” from a country than this one. This year, I was going to predict Vigen Chaldranyan’s “Alter Ego”, about a writer researching the life of a famous composer killed during the Armenian Genocide, or “The Line”, an acclaimed film about the war in Nagorno Karabakh which dominated the new Anahit Armenian Film Awards (a new rival to the Hayak Awards) in December. These two films are among the three local Armenian features at the 2017 Golden Apricot Film Festival (recently rocked by an anti-LGBT censorship scandal). However, it appears both of these front-runners were released too early (which makes it extra sad that Armenia was disqualified this year, in what may have been their best film year since independence).  So, I’m confused what they might send. Armenia likes documentaries, but even their front-runner doc- “Deadlock”- about the tribulations of a disillusioned Armenian immigrant in the USA was also released too early. It won Best Director and Best Documentary at the Anahit Awards. So, I’ve decided to predict Syrian refugee documentary ”The Last Wish” (Վերջին ցանկություն). Other possibilities include “The Last Inhabitant”, which submitted itself for consideration against “Earthquake” last year, but didn’t end up premiering in cinemas until November. It’s about a village that was all but abandoned by its inhabitants during the war against Azerbaijan. They could also send action-comedy “Bravo Virtuoso” (the third Armenian feature screened at the Golden Apricots), or new drama “Good Morning” (which lost Best Picture to “The Line”).

3. AZERBAIJAN- “The Pomegranate Orchard” Azerbaijan has been absent from the Oscar race the past two years despite a rising international profile, and some fairly strong domestic films. This year, they had a rare film at a Class-A festival- “The Pomegranate Orchard”, which was the Opening Film in the “East of the West” Section at Karlovy Vary. Director Ilgar Najaf has been nominated before (for the dull but well-meaning “Buta”) so on paper, this looks like their most likely submission. It’s a modern-day variation on Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” about an old man living peacefully with his daughter-in-law, when his estranged son arrives to bring his wife and family to Russia. However, Azerbaijan has ignored Karlovy Vary movies before (“40th Door”, “Down the River”) so it’s possible they’ll prefer to send something like “The Red Garden”, about a man whose desperate desire for a son of his own leads him to acts of cruelty against his wife and foster son, or “Üçüncü günün adamı” (Man of the Third Day) about the Karabakh War. “Garden” garnered Azerbaijan a 2017 Nika nomination for Best CIS Film. I'm also confused as to the domestic release date of “Inner City”, which has variously been reported as March 2016 or February 2017. Directed by Ilgar Safat (“The Precinct”), it’s a noirish love story about a young woman who falls for an unstable war veteran twice her age. Not eligible: UK director Asif Kapadia’s lavish romance “Ali and Nino” is set in Azerbaijan but doesn’t seem to have any major Azerbaijani crew. I’ll guess Azerbaijan sends “Orchard”.
4. BELARUS- “Red Dog” Grumpy Belarus hasn’t submitted a film in this category since 1996 (no other European country has been absent for more than a few years). The country- known as the last dictatorship in Europe- opened up a bit this year (allowing Europeans and Americans to visit the country visa-free) but I don’t see that they have any movies that would coax them back into the Oscar race. For the sake of completion, I choose “Red Dog” (aka “Dog Brown” or Пёс рыжий), the true story of an elite K-9 unit of dogs that were used by the Soviets to plant bombs and launch attacks in wartime (WWII?? Not sure...). The film was made in Russian and released in both Russian and dubbed English versions. Other eligible films that show the existence of a local film industry: “Shadow of the Enemy” (Тень врага), about Soviet spies trying to defeat the Nazis, and teen comedy “Party-zan”, which looks like a sort of Belarusian "American Pie".

5. BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- “Men Don’t Cry” Bosnia-Herzegovina is almost certain to send “Men Don’t Cry”, a fascinating new drama that opened the Main Competition at Karlovy Vary. It’s about a talk therapy group hosted in a remote mountain location, bringing together war veterans who fought on all three sides (Bosniak, Serb and Croat) of the Bosnian Civil War of the 1990s. Few “talky” subjects have the potential  to be more tense and exciting. If “Men” doesn’t get a qualifying release, other options include “All the Cities of the North” (which may be handicapped by the fact that it’s from the renegade Bosnian Serb Republic) and “Birds Like Us”, Bosnia’s first animated film. The Sarajevo Film Festival lineup should be announced next week, which may reveal some additional contenders.  Unless Bosnia has something else new premiering in Sarajevo (i.e. Aida Begic’s “Never Leave Me”, her upcoming Arabic-language film about the war in Syria), "Men" should easily win the race to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

6. BULGARIA- “Glory” Bulgaria made it to the shortlist just once with Stephan Komandarev’s “The World is Big and Salvation Lies Around the Corner” (a good movie but one that I found fairly forgettable). Komandarev’s new taxi driver movie “Directions” got good reviews at Cannes, but it will probably tour the international film festival circuit for awhile before it gets released in Bulgaria. That's what happened with “The Judgment” a few years ago, but you can pencil it in to represent Bulgaria next year.  This year is a three-way race between audience favorite “Glory”, arthouse favorite “Godless” and an obscure local B&W title- “Memories of Fear”- that swept the local Academy Awards in June. The latter film beat out the other two for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Set in the 1960s, it's a satirical look at censorship and misery during the Communist era. It should surprise nobody that director Ivan Pavlov is the President of the Union of Bulgarian Filmmakers, which coincidentally also manages the awards. “Godless” won the Golden Leopard at Locarno 2016- a rare (perhaps first??) Class-A festival win for a Bulgarian film, and it also won Best Bulgarian Film at both the Sofia and Varna Film Festivals. It tells the story of an amoral drug-addled nurse who sells the ID cards of her elderly patients for money, who is suddenly confronted with a serious moral dilemma. "Glory" also aims to shed a light on the negative and corrupt aspects of modern Bulgarian society, but with a slightly lighter touch. It's about an introverted railway worker who accidentally becomes a media celebrity when he returns a large sum of lost cash. It won Best Screenplay in Sofia and has played at innumerable festivals around the world (including Locarno where it lost the Grand Prize to “Godless”, but won a Special Mention). The Bulgarian Academy has a reputation for favoring senior, well-connected directors (Pavlov is 70 and has been selected before….the female helmers of “Godless” and “Glory” are thirty years younger) so I worry that “Memories” will get this. But for now I’m predicting the Bulgarians select “Glory”, with “Godless” in second, “Memories” in third and “The Singing Shoes” (Jury Prize, Moscow 2016), about a man who discovers his late wife was forcibly recruited into being a Communist informant, a distant fourth.

7. CROATIA- “The Constitution” Croatia has sent movies to the Oscars every year without luck since their independence was recognized in 1992, and all but two of these movies competed at their national Pula Film Festival (one was in 1994, when the festival was canceled due to war, and the other was a children’s cartoon in 1997). They don’t always choose the Best Picture winner at Pula (in fact, they rarely do) but with the winners scheduled to be announced on July 22nd, we should have a better idea of which new films will be competitive. For now, I’m predicting “The Constitution”, which won the Grand Prize at the Montreal Film Festival for its story of four characters- including a gay nationalist and a minority Serb- whose interpersonal relationships reflect Croatia's history, its prejudices and its future. I think most people are predicting “Quit Staring at My Plate”, a drama about a “white trash” family taking care of their overbearing father after a stroke. I know it played at the bigger Venice Film Festival, but reviews haven’t been as good as “The Constitution”.  Croatia will probably select one of these two, but three other notable contenders include “All the Best”, a family dramedy which won five awards at last year’s Pula Film Festival before opening in theatres in December 2016, “Agape” (directed by three-time Croatian rep Branko Schmidt) about a boy who accuses a priest of sexual assault when he feels he isn’t getting enough attention, and “Dead Fish Float on Their Backs”, a B&W drama about the effect of a bizarre suicide on village residents (reportedly featuring 42 characters!).  Less likely: drama “Goran”, about a taxi driver taking care of his sick wife, and romantic black comedy “Ministry of Love”. Dalibor Matanic and Arsen Anton Ostojić have been selected to represent Croatia a total of five times but I don’t think Matanic’s horror film “Exorcism” will be selected, and Ostojic’s “F20” won’t premiere until next year.
8. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Barefoot” The Czech Republic made quite a big deal of the fact that “Little Crusader” (which opens in Czech cinemas in August) was the first Czech film to win the Grand Prize at their prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in fifteen years. Based on an obscure poem, it’s an historical drama about a medieval knight searching for his missing son. Watching the film has been described by Variety as “hard work” and by Cineuropa as “an intriguing mix of symbols”. That probably makes this film it a non-starter with American audiences, but since the Czechs have proudly sent films about talking pigeons and meat puppets, it’s very possible they’ll also send “Crusader”. However, I’m going to predict they send Jan Sverak’s upcoming film “Barefoot”, about an 8-year old sent to the countryside to avoid the worst of the fighting during WWII. Sverak won an Oscar for “Kolya” two decades ago, but hasn't had a film sent to the Oscars since 2001. However, with cute children, humor and a WWII background, “Barefoot” sounds like a mix of everything that Oscar likes best. In third place is “A Prominent Patient” which both the Czechs and Slovaks consider to be a majority national production (it’s probably 50-50) and which could be submitted by either country. With a Czech director (and a super competitive year in Slovakia) and a win at this year’s Czech Lions, the film definitely seems more "Czech". It's about a Czech diplomat in London in 1938 when the Allied Powers capitulated to Hitler. In fourth place, we have Bohdan Slama’s dramedy “Ice Mother”, about a widow finding love late in life. Slama was selected in 2002 and 2005 for similar village dramedies. All three of these films (“Barefoot”, “Patient” and “Mother”) definitely stand a better chance with the American Academy than the abstract,arty “Crusader”. Rounding out the Top Five: “Garden Store: Family Friend”, a historical melodrama directed by the prolific Jan Hrebejk (who repped the Czechs in 2000, 2004 and 2010, scoring one Oscar nod) about women waiting for their POW husbands to return. It’s the first film of a trilogy, all three of which will be released in 2017.

9. ESTONIA- “November” Estonia appears to have five eligible films, although there are a few more that might be released at the end of the eligibility period. I’m predicting this will be a two-way race. On one hand, Estonia has the weird, Gothic folklore-infused “November”, which looks like a cross between a Grimm fairy tale and a David Lynch film. Filmed in black and white, it won Best Cinematography at the Tribeca Film Festival. Its fans swear that it’s more accessible than it looks from the trailer. Then there’s “A Man Who Looks Like Me”, a tragicomedy about a man and his estranged father, who end up competing for the attentions of the same girl. Estonia likes things weird (“The Temptation of St. Tony”, anyone?) but “A Man Who Looks Like Me” is more likely to find favor with the Academy. Both were at Karlovy Vary. I predict they go with “November”, which fits the pattern of their often quirky Estonian submissions. The other three released films (comedy “The Dissidents”, rom-com “When You Least Expect It” and psychological drama “Pretenders”) won’t come into play, but the upcoming “The Man Slayer. The Virgin. The Shadow” by previously submitted director Sulev Keedus could beat them all if it's released in time. According to its Facebook page, its release date has been pushed back from September to October, which is good news for "November"! 

10. GEORGIA- “Khibula” Georgia has a quintet of prospective contenders, including three by previously submitted directors- “Gogita’s New Life” (Levan Koguashvili, who directed the brilliant low-budget masterpiece “Street Days”), “Khibula” (George Ovashvili, who was shortlisted for the dreary “Corn Island”) and “My Happy Family” (Nana Ekvtimishvili, who directed the dull “In Bloom”). The other two candidates are “Dede” (the feature debut of Mariam Khatchvani) and “Hostages” (Rezo Gigineishvili). The fact that Ovashvili got Georgia to the shortlist stage for the first time in twenty years automatically makes him the frontrunner (Variety said as much in their review) for “Khibula” (Karlovy Vary), a fictional (and ultimately allegorical) account of the flight of Georgia’s controversial post-Soviet president Gamsakhurdia. Critics note it’s not necessarily an easy film to watch (neither was “Corn Island”) and some local knowledge is beneficial. Not everyone likes the film (Gamsakhurdia is a controversial figure in Georgia) so in second place I have family drama “My Happy Family” (Berlin Forum, Sundance, many others), about a 50-something woman undergoing a midlife crisis, and who feels suffocated by her marriage and her overbearing family. It’s a strong dark horse to knock “Khibula” off its pedestal. In third place is “Dede” (Karlovy Vary), a culturally rich drama in the endangered Svan language about a woman fought over by men in a very remote and traditional part of the country. Critics say it’s exotic, fascinating but maybe slightly unpolished. Rounding out the Top Five will be action-thriller “Hostages”, a real-life thriller about a 1983 air hijacking by anti-Soviet intellectuals, and documentary “Gogita’s New Life”, about an ex-con seeking to readjust to modern-day life. It’s a competitive year for the Georgians! Georgia’s Zaza Urushadze brought Estonia an Oscar nomination for “Tangerines” but his new film “The Confession” (aka “The Monk”) won’t premiere by September 30. 

11. HUNGARY- “1945” Hungary has a competitive two-way race between two titles that premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year. The obvious Hungarian nominee is “On Body and Soul”, a weird, weird, artsy love story set in a slaughterhouse in the countryside. It won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, which is normally enough to guarantee you the right to represent your country at the Oscars (unless your film is banned at home like Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi”). However, director Ildiko Enyedi has gained just as much publicity for her scathing remarks against the Hungarian government, leading some to believe that the government-linked selection committee won’t select her film because of it. However, I just think that AMPAS will hate this quirky, arty love story and will prefer what they usually like from Eastern Europe- the Jewish experience in World War II. Therefore, I think the smart submission for Hungary (and the film they will eventually choose) is actually “1945” (Berlin Panorama), a B&W drama set in Hungary right after World War II, when a village wedding is interrupted by the return of a few Jewish residents who were presumed dead in the Holocaust (and whose homes and property have been taken by greedy but (possibly) remorseful residents). “1945” has gotten solid reviews from critics and, even if they aren’t quite as good as “On Body and Soul”, it is much more likely to appeal to Oscar voters. So I think “1945” is in. Some people are predicting Syrian refugee fantasy-drama “Jupiter’s Moon”, but I just can’t that film (or any other) competing with these two major movies.

12. KOSOVO- “Unwanted” Kosovo, Eastern Europe’s newest nation, has a very small (but growing) film industry. For the past two years, they’ve selected films that premiered in Karlovy Vary. Their highest profile film of the year- “Unwanted”- was also their representative at Karlovy Vary 2017, so it makes sense that this will be the Kosovar submission. “Unwanted” is about a Kosovar refugee woman in the Netherlands, her son, who only speaks Dutch, and his complicated relationship with a local girl and with Dutch society as a whole. A co-production with the Netherlands, the integration of refugees in Western Europe is a topical issue that should be of interest to viewers. There’s a slight possibility that Kosovo may try to claim Albania’s Kosovo war drama “Distant Angels” as their own, but I think that will be ultimately be selected by Albania.
13. LATVIA- “Chronicles of Melanie” Latvia has one potential blockbuster coming out this year- Aigars Grauba’s historical drama about the Crusades, “King’s Ring”, which is scheduled to premiere in November 2017. You can mark that one down for Latvia next year. This year, they will send “Chronicles of Melanie” a drama about the 1941 Soviet deportations of ethnic Latvians to work camps in Siberia. The film focuses on one middle-class woman and her 8-year old son, who are forcibly separated from her husband and her father. Latvia doesn’t have much else so this should be an easy decision for them.
14. LITHUANIA- “The Saint” Lithuania held their Silver Crane Awards in June and the big winner was “The Saint”, which won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and three of the four Acting Awards. It’s a drama set during the 2008 economic crisis in which a husband and father has a difficult time adjusting to unemployment when he is laid off from his job. All those awards make it the front-runner, but Lithuania does have a few other possibilities. Nationalist drama “Emilia” is about the struggle for Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union. It lost most of its Silver Crane nominations to “The Saint”, but it’s certainly a more stirring subject for the average Lithuanian and the film topped the local box-office for two weeks. As for Sarunas Bartas’ "Frost" (co-starring Vanessa Paradis), the film made it to Cannes but got bad reviews so I don't see it competing here. Lithuania has selected two documentary shorts in the past, which means “Woman and the Glacier” (Karlovy Vary), a 56-minute documentary about a Lithuanian scientist who has been studying climate change at a remote scientific station in Kazakhstan since the days of the USSR, a definite possibility. Last but not least is “Miracle”, which has the intriguing tagline “About pigs and miracles!” Scheduled for release this autumn, it's a comedy-drama about a woman struggling to keep a village farm company in business, who is seduced by the promises of a charismatic American investor who claims he will be bailing out the collective. All four of these have a chance, but it would be foolish to bet against “The Saint”.  

15. MACEDONIA- “When the Day Had No Name” Macedonia rarely has films at international film festivals so the fact that bleak drama “When the Day Had No Name” competed in the Panorama Section of the Berlin Film Festival means that it is automatically the front-runner for Macedonia.  The film is based on a true story in which a group of local teenagers ended up murdered due to ethnic tensions that nearly led to civil war. I'd be more interested in seeing “Golden Five”, about the investigation of a cold case series of murders that took place fifty years before. It got better reviews than "Name", but I still think the Berlinale appearance will mean that it will win out. Dark horse: the upcoming, absurdist black comedy “Year of the Monkey”, by the same team that made Macedonia’s wacky Oscar submission “Punk Is Not Dead” in 2011.
16. MOLDOVA- “Eastern Business” Moldova used to produce a single feature film every few years, but production is now up to two or three annually. This year, the two front-runners are buddy road comedy “Eastern Business” and low-budget relationship drama “Resentment”. Black comedy “Eastern Business” has played at a number of festivals (including Transylvania and Tallinn Black Nights). It's about two Moldovan guys who set off on a chaotic road trip to try and make some extra money. “Resentment" is a drama about a Moldovan mail-order bride whose husband disappears after joining the Transnistria conflict as a mercenary. That sounds like a more Oscar-appropriate film, but it hasn’t been released yet. Add to that the fact that the team behind “Eastern Business” is more professionally known (Igor Cobileanski directed Moldova’s most recent Oscar submission in 2014) and “Business” should be Moldova’s third-ever entry to the Oscar race.

17. MONTENEGRO- “Vrijeme između nas” Montenegro has a population of only 600,000 people, so most of their films are co-productions with larger ex-Yugoslav republics like Serbia and Croatia. The government established a National Film Center late last year so film is theoretically a growing priority, but they don’t have much to send this year. Two Serbian films by Montenegrin-born directors- “Diamond of Boyana” and “The Samurai in Autumn”- are the only eligible films released so far. “Diamond” is a fairly commercial romantic comedy about a man on a road trip to meet the jewel thief father he long believed to be dead, and “Samurai” is a “romantic, martial arts film”. Before September 30th,  I expect we'll also see the release of slapstick action-comedy “The Books of Books” (starring a local TV comedy troupe). But none of these films seems likely. Montenegro also has an upcoming drama “The Time Between Us” (Vrijeme između nas), which tells three different stories of fathers and sons, set at the end of WWII, the end of the Cold War and in the present-day. Serbian actor Lazar Ristovski has a small role. Obviously “Time” will get this if it’s released. If not, it's possible that Montenegro will take the year off. 

18. POLAND- “Hatred” Poland has a competitive race between Agnieszka Holland’s crime thriller/murder mystery “Spoor” and Wojciech Smarzowski’s controversial historical film “Hatred”, which dominated the 2017 Polish Eagle Awards. Within Poland itself, “Hatred” has gotten much better reviews,  and its WWII subject will be of much greater interest to the Academy. “Spoor”, which competed in Berlin, has bigger names (director Agnieszka Holland has been nominated for three Oscars- twice for Foreign Film and once for Best Screenplay) and much more festival play.  I think the weightiness of the subject of "Hatred” will lead to its selection. It’s the story of a multi-ethnic village of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews on the eve of WWII, and how the war subsequently devastates relations between the ethnic groups, personal relationships and, of course, the whole of Poland and Ukraine. Ukraine, upset by the portrayal of Ukrainians, banned the film, saying that it will “harm public security”, annoying Poland and giving them another reason to pick it. “Spoor” has gotten good reviews for its story of an older woman investigating the murders of a local hunting club, but not more than that. If it wasn’t for Holland, the film would quickly be forgotten. I really can’t see Poland selecting anything else, but the rest of the top five contenders would be “Wild Roses”, a twisty adoption drama featuring a woman who gets pregnant while her husband is working overseas, serial killer drama “I Am A Killer” and splashy musical “Bodo”.  

19. ROMANIA- “Ana, mon amour” Winner of the Silver Berlin Bear, “Ana, mon amour” follows a young couple as they fall in love and subsequently have to deal with the young woman’s worsening mental illness. It’s directed by Calin Peter Netzer, who also made “Child’s Pose”, one of the more accessible films of the Romanian New Wave. “Ana” isn’t as acclaimed as his earlier film, but the Silver Bear should boost it to the top of Romania’s list. It’s been a fairly quiet year for Romania (they were completely absent from Cannes and Venice) so “Ana” should get this, unless something new pops up at the end of the year. Two potential challengers are “Breaking News”, the only Romanian feature in competition at Karlovy Vary, and uproarious comedy “6.9 on the Richter Scale”. “Breaking News”, a Romanian New Wave film about a journalist bonding with the son of a recently deceased colleague, is said to be good, but a minor New Wave effort. “Richter Scale” has gotten great reviews, and Caranfil has been selected twice before, but the film is a comedy meant to appeal to local audiences. Cineuropa compares it to Almodovar’s “I’m So Excited”- supremely entertaining but unlikely to win awards. Less likely: “The Fixer” (Toronto) is about journalists doing a story on a recently repatriated prostitute,  “Marita” is a family drama that won the East of the West competition at Karlovy Vary 2017, “One Step Behind the Seraphim”, is a coming-of-age drama set at a conservative university and “Scarred Hearts” (Jury Prize in Locarno) is a story about an unexpected romance that develops in a hospice for dying patients in 1937 Romania.

20. RUSSIA- "Loveless" Russia is the most difficult of these countries to predict not only because they produce the largest number of films, but also also because there are conflicting stories about how influenced the Russian committee is by domestic politics. Often, the Russian Academy will select a grizzled, Soviet-style Putin supporter like Nikita Mikhalkov or Karen Shakhnazarov for a film nobody really likes. But in 2014, they showed that they were willing to consider films made by anti-Putin directors like “Leviathan” if it meant that Russia had a better chance at winning an Oscar. This year’s two most critically acclaimed movies are both by directors linked to the opposition, namely “The Student” and “Loveless”. With the director of “The Student” in jail on (possibly politically motivated) corruption charges, the most likely Russian submission this year is “Loveless”, made by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the same director as “Leviathan”. I didn’t really care for “Leviathan” but everyone else did (including Oscar) and “Loveless”, about a divorcing couple searching for their missing son, has gotten even better reviews. Bottom line: Unlike China, Russia is a confident country which does not micromanage their international image. Also, by selecting a “subversive” film to an international awards show, they can claim that, after all, there is no censorship in Russia. In a fairly weak year, odds look good for “Loveless”. However, if they decide they want to reward a more politically connected director, they could consider (1)- action drama “Viking” (Andrey Kravchuk), a hit action movie with middling reviews, but whose set was visited by President Putin and which has been successfully sold to a number of countries, (2)- sci-fi thriller "Attraction", director by Fedor Bondarchuk, who has been selected twice for action movies, or (3)-  Karen Shakhnazarov’s “Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story”, telling a different perspective of the famed Tolstoy novel. Russia also has other options that have gotten much better reviews than these three, including “Spacewalk”, a look at the Cold War “space race” from a Russian perspective, romantic drama “Arrhthmia” (Grand Prize in Sochi) and “Closeness” (Cannes 2017), about a family dealing with a kidnapping for ransom in the obscure Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. I’m hesitantly predicting “Loveless”, followed by “Spacewalk” and the potentially embarrassing “Viking”.

21. SERBIA- “Requiem for Mrs. J” On paper, Serbia’s most prominent film of the year is easily “On the Milky Road”, directed by Emir Kusturica, the acclaimed director whose films represented Yugoslavia four times, including Oscar nominee “When Father Was Away on Business”. It co-stars Italian actress Monica Bellucci. However, the film has gotten middling reviews and (as the review from Variety states all too clearly) Kusturica’s films over the past decade haven’t been great. Serbia changed its nomination process a few years ago, and now only films that pay a hefty entry fee will be considered by the Serbian Academy. So, a lot depends on which producers are willing to take the risk. This year, the four front-runners are a pair of dark comedies (box-office hit “Herd” and festival hit “Requiem for Mrs. J”) as well as two dramas- “Santa Maria Della Salute” and “The Return”.  The best reviews of the year have gone to "Mrs. J" (Berlin, Karlovy Vary, Sofia), about a widow planning to commit suicide to join her late husband. Festival films like this one are the ones most likely to benefit from a spot on the Oscar list, but if “Mrs. J” doesn’t pay up, “The Return”, a thriller about an immigrant who returns to Serbia after 40- years living in America, should get the nod.  Hit comedy "Herd", about life in the entertainment industry, and “Santa Maria”, a period love story made by a respected 84-year old director, will likely finish third and fourth. Unlikely: Goran Paskaljevic is a great director but his latest film “Land of the Gods” is set in India and unlikely to rep the nationalist Serbians. Upcoming dramas “About Bugs and Heroes” and cross-cultural romance “The Misunderstanding” aren’t scheduled to open until December, according to IMDB.

22. SLOVAKIA- “The Line” Slovakia deserved to win an Oscar last year for “Eva Nova”, but this terribly sad, darkly comic and ultimately hopeful (yes! All three!) drama was ignored as many of the best films often are. Slovakia produces about eight fiction features a year, hosts its own annual film awards, and regularly sees its films screen at major festivals like Cannes (“Out”) and Berlin (“A Prominent Patient” and “Little Harbour”). Variety recently wrote a cautiously optimistic article about the country’s cinematic future. This year, the Slovaks have a strong slate of eligible films- I count no less than eight real contenders. The Slovak Academy seems to be a grim bunch; over the past decade, they have selected mostly sad stories with bleak cinematography and a docudrama style of filmmaking. That would seem to bode well for “Filthy” (Rotterdam), about the traumatic aftermath of a rape, “A Hole in My Head”, a documentary about Roma Holocaust survivors, and “Little Harbour” (Dir: Iveta Grofova, selected in 2012; Berlinale KPlus) about an abused little girl who kidnaps two babies to raise as her own. These are the sort of films that Slovakia usually picks. However, Slovakia will be hard-pressed to ignore the festival attention garnered by action-thriller “The Line” (the only Slovak film in the main competition at Karlovy Vary), absurdist odyssey “Out” (Cannes, Un Certain Regard) and Czech-language historical drama “A Prominent Patient” (Berlin Special Screening) , a co-production which received Best Picture nominations at both the Czech and Slovak national film awards. In any other year, family drama “Nina” and thriller “Kidnapping” would also be competitive. It’s an embarrassment of riches. I predict Slovakia makes a surprise pick with “The Line”, about the lives of smugglers and traffickers on the Slovak-Ukrainian border when this obscure frontier suddenly became an EU border. I admit it’s definitely not what they usually go for, but it's probably their true best film of the year. Rounding out the Top Five:  the quirky “Out” and documentary “A Hole in the Head”, followed by “Little Harbour” and dysfunctional family drama “Nina".
23. SLOVENIA- “Nightlife” Slovenia has a wide-open race this year. As of July, they’ve released five eligible films ("Come Along", "A Comedy of Tears," "Nightlife", "Nika" and "Pr’Hostar") and there are another half dozen that may or may not be released in the next two months. So, what they choose depends a lot on what gets released before September 30. Out of these five, the front-runner is probably “Nightlife”, a film-noir thriller about a morally conflicted lawyer who is found murdered. It has gotten mixed-to-positive reviews but Damjan Kozole managed to win Best Director at Karlovy Vary 2016 and at the national Vesna Awards. He repped Slovenia at the Oscars in 2003 for the underrated human trafficking drama “Spare Parts”. But the year isn’t over yet, and I definitely think that several of the upcoming releases could easily beat “Nightlife” which was released last year and has lost its buzz. Family dramas “The Basics of Killing” and “Ivan” were made by Slovenian directors who have represented the country before, and “The Miner” is about a Bosnian refugee in Slovenia who discovers mass graves left over from WWII in the mines where he works.  It’s impossible to predict Slovenia without knowing which of these (if any) gets released.  In the end, I’ll predict “Nightlife” since I know it’s eligible, with “The Basics of Killing” (directed by two-time Oscar rep Jan Cvitkovic, about a marriage falling apart), “The Miner”, multi-story “Perseverance” and teen wilderness thriller “Come Along” rounding out the Top Five.

24. UKRAINE- “Falling” Ukraine is likely to send “Falling” which was the country’s sole representative at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and one of two national representatives in the main competition of the local Odessa Film Festival. It’s an artsy love story focusing on young people growing up in today’s aimless, unstable Ukraine, specifically a young musician who goes to the countryside to live with his grandfather in lieu of "rehab", where he falls in love with a local girl who is preparing to emigrate to the West. Running a close second is “Black Level”, directed by one of the producers of the acclaimed (and famously snubbed) sign-language drama “The Tribe”. It's a slice-of-life drama about a Ukrainian photographer. Ukraine usually names a three-film shortlist, so these films will probably be joined either by village drama “The Strayed” (filmed in a local dialect), refugee drama “Autumn Memories”, war movie “The Raid”, or perhaps a documentary like “Dixie Land”, filmed by the same director as last year’s doc submission. I notice many people predicting Ukraine will send "A Gentle Creature", directed by Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised, Germany-based Sergei Loznitsa. However, Loznitsa seems to be a man without a country. He has gotten good notices for his bleak foreign-financed, Russian-language films in the past, but I don’t think Ukraine considers him to be a local director nor do they consider "Creature" a Ukrainian film. 

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