This weekend the great and good of Hollywood will converge on the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles for the 89th Academy Awards. Amidst all the red carpet posturing, outrageously expensive goody bags, and anti-Trump speeches, they might get around to celebrating a few films — with black masculinity saga Moonlight taking on Golden Age musical tribute La La Land in the battle for Best Picture. Despite nods in recent years for gems like Paweł Pawlikovski's 2015 Best Foreign Language Film winner Ida, the Academy's ingrained preference for English-language films for the top prizes means that New East cinema barely gets a taste of the glamour. To put that straight, we present the inaugural New East Oscars, The Calvert Journal's picks across an eclectic range of categories selected to showcase the best of the past year's cinematic output.
The Ryan Gosling Heartthrob Award
Winner: Danila Kozlovsky for The Crew (Nikolai Lebedev, Russia)
Actors around the world strive for the perfect balance of handsomeness and depth of character, which is no easy feat. A dash of rebelliousness seems to help Danila Kozlovsky, Russian cinema’s main sweetheart of the hour, as he stars in The Crew as a young pilot called Alexey who has issues with authority and attitude. Luckily for Alexey’s career, he is a great pilot, and luckily for the film, Kozlovsky is great at delivering the good-looking rebel routine. The Crew, a liberal remake of a classic 1979 Soviet disaster film, was easily the most important Russian blockbuster of 2016, partly because it is only the second domestic flick to be shot in IMAX, but also because the cast is a star-studded cake with Kozlovsky as the cherry on top.
Most Awkward Family Dinner
Winner: Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
The past year has seen a number of releases from doyens of the Romanian New Wave — Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts — but Cristi Puiu’s latest, Sieranevada, deserves special praise. Centred on the memorial service for the father of put-upon neurologist Lary, Sieranevada is a masterclass in micro-aggressions, simmering family tensions, and mordant humour, as several generations of in-laws get together to bicker over the past, present and future. Puiu also makes excellent use of that most east European of settings: the cramped, dingy post-socialist apartment.
The Quentin Tarantino Award for Gratuitous Violence
Winner: Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, Russia)
Nausea-inducing POV camera work and shooter game visuals: Hardcore Henry is basically Mad Max made for video-game fans, and looks like it was directed by a teenager who had one too many Red Bulls. The actual director of the film, Ilya Naishuller, is also known for the video to The Weeknd's False Alarm, which was obviously inspired by the film itself. While many won't be able to stand the madcap violence and camerawork so shaky it makes Cloverfield look like a Steve McQueen film, Hardcore Henry is a must for those who always wanted to see a violent computer game unravel on the streets of Moscow.
The Gosha Rubchinskiy Post-Socialist Style Award
Winner: All These Sleepless Nights (Michał Marczak, Poland)
35-year-old writer and director Michał Marczak’s gorgeous love letter to Warsaw — and the beautiful young wasters who roam its clubs and after parties – was a palate cleanser for Polish cinema. Where his compatriots are often occupied by weighty historical themes (as in Tomasz Wasilewski’s excellent United States of Love, another 2016 highlight), Marczak allows his protagonists to languish in their own directionless present, get high, fall in love, go to raves, and ponder embarrassingly about the meaning of life as only teenage drifters can. And look like H&M models while doing so.
Best Exploration of Slavic Spirituality
Winner: Viking (Andrei Kravchuk, Russia)
Viking was supposed to be an exploration of the adoption of Christianity in the medieval state of Kievan Rus', and locally produced competition for the Game of Thrones — and there's certainly all the required violence, rape, power struggles and period costumes. But instead the film, which stars Russian golden boy Danila Kozlovsky (him again), half-hidden behind an impressive beard, turned out to be a study of wild violence, paganism and Slavic-ness in a way that practically no history book or film has ever dared to be before. The Dostoyevskian themes of spirituality and sanctity are perfectly in tune with the unexpected pagan motifs, as well as the exceptionally current topic of the clash between Russia and “the West”. One could argue that this represents director Andrei Kravchuk's formula for Slavic-ness — contradiction, antagonism and spirituality — regardless of religion.
Best Value for Money
Winner: It's Not the Time of my Life (Szabolcs Hajdu, Hungary)
For his seventh feature film, Hungarian maverick Szabolcs Hajdu redefined the term “shoestring budget”. It’s Not the Time of my Life was shot in the director’s own apartment, starring his own friends and relatives, shot by his students and even catered by his neighbours. Hajdu was able to craft this ramshackle gem, a twisting, touching family drama, for just $5,000 (that’s about 6,000 times cheaper than probably Best Picture winner La La Land), completely free of the kinds of restrictions that come with accepting state funding. A salutary lesson to aspiring filmmakers everywhere: sometimes all you need for a breakout feature is right in front of you.
Most Innovative Depiction of a Mid-Life Crisis
Winner: Zoology (Ivan Tverdovsky, Russia)
This film's main character Natasha, played by Natalia Pavlenkova, is living a depressing, joyless life: she's 55 and has lived with her overbearing mother for the entirety of it, her colleagues bully her and she's extremely unhappy. Then, one day, she grows a tail and her life, unsurprisingly, changes dramatically. Physical manifestations of emotional crises are not exactly a new topic but Zoology is not so much a riff Kafka as it is an intensely Russian, filled with archetypal characters, superstitions and symbolism, in the best traditions of absurdist fantastic realism.
Béla Tarr Award for Poetic Miserabilism
Winner: Godless (Ralitza Petrova, Bulgaria)
One of a number of Bulgarian filmmakers currently reshaping the country’s cinematic output — Konstantin Bojanov and Maya Vitkova also come to mind — Ralitza Petrova delivered one of the most unsettling social commentaries of 2016 with Godless. The story of a morphine-addicted physiotherapist in the economically depressed mountains of Bulgaria who takes to stealing her elderly patients’ ID cards for money, Godless is a brutal film but one filmed with real craft and an eye for bleak natural beauty. Petrova says she “battled with the film on a very visceral, physical level” during production, and it tells on the final result, in the best possible way.
Best Collection of East European Arthouse Clichés
Winner: I, Olga Hepnarová (Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, Czech Republic)
I, Olga Hepnarová looks like it was shot for the trendy Eastern Bloc enthusiasts. The minimalist aesthetic of the black-and-white film works perfectly with both the arthouse traditions and the stereotypes of bleak eastern Europe. The cold misanthropic atmosphere is reinforced by the main character Olga Hepnarová, a historical character — an isolated, ostracised and bullied young woman who drove a lorry into a crowd of people in Prague in 1973. The film plays a game of compassion and separation, carefully balancing on the thin line between making a film from the point of view of a convicted mass murderer, aiming to study, and also not getting too close to a risky type of sympathy.
Political Allegory of the Year
Winner: The Plague at the Karatas Village (Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Kazakhstan)
Adilkhan Yerzhanov is arguably foremost amongst Kazakhstan’s unpredictable and principled young directors. He made his name with a trilogy of low-budget, absurdist parables of petty political corruption that eschewed the current Russian trend for grim realism in favour of something altogether weirder and more grotesque: Realtor (2011), Constructors (2013) and The Owners (2014). His latest sees a new mayor arrive in the titular village, which is ravaged by a plague that the locals insist is nothing more than the flu. It’s not long before he’s dragged into a surreal hellscape of corruption and violence. The basic plague/corruption metaphor might be a tad obvious, but there’s something almost Brechtian about the way Yerzhanov leads his characters on a merry dance to damnation. Strong stuff.