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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Review: The 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts

Here are some brief thoughts on this year’s Oscar nominated short films. Beginning with Live Action there is Ave Maria, an Israel/Palestine culture crash comedy. Silent nuns must find a way to deal/help with the Jews who have wrecked their car near their convent. It’s a fresher approach to stories from the region, but not terribly funny either. It’s fine. Competent.

Day One is funnier, unintentionally so, and less competent. It’s about an Afghan-American interpreter’s first day in the field. And her first day is a doozy. It too includes differences of culture and religion, but in a way that might be true but nevertheless feels phony and forced. The birthing scene, and most the short, is a weird and stilted rollercoaster ride of horror and comedy that’s supposed to be straight drama. Not great.

Shok is only marginally better. It’s about 2 boys in 1998 Kosovo. They’re initially more concerned with bicycles and trivialities before it becomes clear they cannot remain oblivious to the violence surrounding them. The kid actors are good, but the short is still in search of a point. It also shares some of the same phoniness problems as Day One. The random ending is also more comical than shocking.

Stutterer is a solid indie-romance from England. It’s the shortest of the group and its brevity serves it well. A chronic stutterer spends his days isolated until he makes a special online connection. At feature length it’d be insufferable, but as is, kind of cute and mildly charming.

The best of the group is Everything Will Be Okay. It’s kind of an inverse of the terrific Just Before Losing Everything from two years ago. It’s about a divorced Dad picking up his little girl for the weekend. It slowly becomes obvious that Dad has other plans. It’s tragic, sad, and really smart about finding its way to the end with the right amount of tension and withholding.

Moving on to the Animated Shorts we have World of Tomorrow. I’ve contributed to only 2 kickstarters and Don Hertzfeldt’s was one of them. The man is a genius and so is this short. It’s a twisted tour of the future with a little girl’s 3rd generation clone as our guide, but the whole trip is completely lost on the adorable Emily Prime. It’s filled with crazy sci-fi ideas, existential terror, and a perfectly balanced happy/sad poetry that feels all the more poignant coming from stick figures. The entire Oscar ceremony will be a total waste if this film doesn’t win.

Bear Story and Sanjay’s Super Team are both just fine. The former looks a lot like decade-old music videos from the band Super Furry Animals. But instead of cool music you get the most cloying score imaginable for quadruple the runtime. It’s cute, I guess. And the latter is neat and important for showcasing a lesser seen culture to the U.S. masses, but other than that it’s a whole lot of bluster and filler. Not one of PIXAR’s best. I did enjoy We Can’t Live Without Cosmos and its offbeat sense of humor. I’m not totally sure I got all of it, but it was funny, heartfelt, and unique. Finally, Prologue is the shortest and the most beautifully animated of the group. It feels less like a complete film and more like a proof of concept video. But the hand-drawn animation is so great that it hardly matters. It also features a man being stabbed in the anus, but you know, beautifully stabbed.

Documentary Shorts are as misery soaked as you’d expect, but there are some real winners this year. From previous winner for Saving Face, there comes A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. It’s about “honor killings” in Pakistan. But what starts off as just another “isn’t this third world terrible” doc becomes fascinating because of its unbelievable case subject. A girl survives an awful and senseless attempted murder, and her circumstance forces her to make a choice about forgiving her attackers and legally setting them free. The cognitive dissonance caught on camera is staggering.

Chau, Beyond the Lines is about a teenager in Vietnam born with birth defects due to Agent Orange. It too begins with nothing but agony, but the filmmakers have remarkable patience and follow the story farther in time than you’d expect. Their follow through pays off. It’s a little sappy, but damn if it doesn’t earn the uplift.

Body Team 12 is way too brief to feel consequential. It’s about the unit tasked with disposing of bodies during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. In 13 brief minutes it fails to say anything more than what they do is brave and difficult. Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah is nothing more than a glorified DVD extra. It’d be a good extra, but it doesn’t take 40 minutes to convince me that making Shoah took its toll.

My favorite is Last Day of Freedom. It’s Bill Babbitt telling the story of his brother Manny, but the interview footage has been covered up with rotoscope animation. And all the flashbacks and details of the story are animated as well. Not literally everything that’s said, but repeated bits and underlined moments in a way that captures the essence of the thing more than the precision. It feels gimmicky at first, but finds a nice rhythm and feels more appropriate than reenactments would have. But so much more is going on here too. The tale encompasses Vietnam, PTSD, the death penalty, race, class, and family bonds all through the powerful emotion Bill brings to telling the story. A real standout.

As for what’s winning, who knows? Quality can count in these categories, but so can runtime and language. I think World of Tomorrow has a high enough profile to pull it out. I know, wishful thinking. I think Stutterer fits a profile of being short and in English and half-decent, which has helped in the past. And I think while Last Day of Freedom being animated (and great) helps it stick out, Chau and Forgiveness wouldn’t surprise me because they feel important (and are pretty good). 

Body Team 12, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness will be available on HBO this year. Body Team 12 will debut this month, A Girl in the River will arrive on March 7th, and Claude Lanzmann is set for May 2nd. 

The Academy Award Nominated Shorts are currently playing in limited release via SHORTS HD, click here to see if they're playing in a theater near you.

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