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Moscow on the Hudson: Russian Film Week

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Moscow on the Hudson: Russian Film Week

Russian Film Week, like the Eastern-European films it shows, runs at an absurdly frustrating, devil-may-care pace (at least for this New Yorker). Screenings of sweeping 160-minute epics often begin an hour late, which admittedly comes in handy if you show up at the School of Visual Arts on the east side instead of the SVA Theater on the west side, as too many of us confused movie-goers did for a sold out Anna Karenina. But if you’re willing to brave the stampeding, Russian-barking crowds at the entrance, followed by a sponsor-thanking trailer, followed by a live sponsor-thanking Russian, followed, of course, by the English translation, then by a gratitude-spewing director (or five or six if you went on the sold-out opening night), then by that English translation, to finally see whichever film you’ve by now forgotten the title of, you might just catch some meaningful cinema.

Anna Karenina is one case in point. To complain as my Ukrainian friend did that Sergei Solovyov’s film—based on Tolstoy’s masterpiece about a married woman whose overwhelming passion for her lover steamrolls right over high society morality—is too long is a bit like claiming an AC/DC concert is too loud. (Did she want a YouTube version?) With this latest take’s exquisite costumes, lush production design and sharp cinematography there’s nothing to do but resign oneself to getting lost in the wondrous images for a couple hours. (It’s a shame that Tolstoy’s trashy soap opera never got the Douglas Sirk treatment it deserved.) Then there’s the earthy and sensual Tatyana Drubich in the title role (she looks like a Russian Raquel Welch), the spectacular ballrooms, the riveting classical music, the blinding white winters and white 19th-century dresses. Solovyov’s ample use of bright daylight only serves to heighten the inevitable dark plunges to come.

The dialogue not only holds up, but keeps the film on its toes, with bon mots such as, “Maybe people should be vaccinated for love,” or “I think there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts,” or “Respect was invented to cover the empty place love should be”—all heartbreaking in their eternal truth. By the time Anna Karenina degrades into a trippy haze à la The Doors, you half-expect Jim Morrison to meet the morphine-addled Anna at the train station, reciting the words of her long-suffering, cuckolded husband: “When I doubted I had hope. Now there is no hope. And still I doubt everything.” Da, this is the end. And like the very best melodrama, so fake it’s real.

Or is that the other way around? It is for Kira Muratova, the grand dame of Eastern-European cinema, and the director of the Ukrainian film Melody for a Street Organ (Melodiya dlya Sharmanki). Though I was unfamiliar with Muratova’s work before attending the invitation-only screening for her latest gem, I plan on putting the 75-year-old director’s movies at the top of my must-Netflix list. After seeing Melody for a Street Organ I felt as if I’d discovered the missing link between De Sica and Fellini. (Though I could have done without the Russian film scholar flown in all the way from Pittsburgh to introduce the film and to gravely proclaim, “This is not an allegory of Russia. This is an allegory of homo sapiens.” Later she suggested we view the movie’s art salon scene as a stand-in “for the art-house cinema we’re sitting in,” though we were stuffed to capacity in the commie-drab New York Film Academy screening room.)

The film follows little Alyona (Lena Kostyuk, resembling a young, fair-haired version of Christina Ricci) and her even younger half-brother Nikita (a spellbinding Roma Burlaka) as they set out for the big city on an existential, Christmastime journey straight out of Dickens to find their respective fathers after their mother’s death. Along the way they encounter crazy colorful folks spewing religion and selling useless items—characters only a director like Emir Kusturica could love. Muratova’s camera remains in constant movement even as nothing momentous happens, floating in, out and around scenes, lingering on faces, restless in a sort of madcap gypsy style. “One woman left a dead man in a suitcase here,” a baggage handler in a train station declares. “There are as many violinists in this town as there are dogs,” another guy later states. Human lives are worth a dime a dozen in this frostbitten post-Soviet world.

The innocent Alyona and Nikita slog through this bitter reality, snow crunching loudly under tiny boots (the only sound to be heard as they peek in the windows of festive families celebrating the merry holiday). When they do find money they get robbed. Food is forever plentiful around them, yet always just out of reach. The two find themselves marooned inside a grand railway station—cramped quarters with the feel of a lunatic asylum where the answer to every question is “no idea”—and where no one ever seems to leave, as paralyzed as if at a Buñuel dinner party. “Nobody knows it even though it’s just a step away,” a tux-clad man in a limo tells the kids in answer to their inquiry about the location of a particular lane.

And the decadence thrust into the faces of the exhausted starving children grows ever more absurd as the film nears its fantastic climax. An overhead shot of multicolored balloons tied to Nikita, as he trudges along holding tight to an abandoned cat tucked safely inside his frayed jacket, seems plucked from a Fellini dream. (As does the “Palanquin service” of Chinese immigrants, who carry a costumed socialite through a traffic jam.) Melody for a Street Organ reaches a fever pitch during a shoplifting event in a supermarket provided for the amusement of the wealthy—where the richies get to slum by salaciously stuffing produce down their panties (while Alyona gets hauled away after hungrily shoving too much bread into her mouth). Yet by the time we reach the finale we’re fully prepared. The film’s ending is so shocking not because we didn’t see it coming—but because we didn’t want to! It’s a perfect allegory for these cruel, self-absorbed times.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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