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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

And now some brief thoughts on this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. Starting with Live Action there is Ennemis Intérieurs, a French film that is set almost entirely in an interrogation room. A French officer of Algerian descent interviews a French-born Algerian seeking proper papers. It’s a tense, claustrophobic film with many fiery and well-acted exchanges. It assumes a little too much passing knowledge of the French/Algerian conflict, but is engaging nevertheless. It packs a lot of meaty material into a short time (racism, terrorism etc.) but fizzles a bit at the end. Solid.

La Femme et le TGV is lighter. It’s about a lonely old woman who lives near the train tracks. Twice a day she makes sure to never miss waving at the train as it passes her house. One day, after decades of her routine, she finds a letter from the train’s conductor and she strikes up a correspondence. There are other elements including her defunct bakery, an estranged son, and a nice young man in town she keeps running into. All of it is faux-Amélie agreeable. Jane Birkin allows herself to be vulnerable in the part, but I couldn’t care less about anything that happens in the story.

Silent Nights is ghastly. It’s about a Danish woman volunteering at a homeless shelter where she meets and falls in love with an immigrant from Ghana. This is one of the phoniest, nonsensical shorts I’ve ever seen. At first it seems like it might have something to say about the immigrant experience, but it abandons that to focus on some extreme white privilege. The whole thing is impractical and a little insulting with an embarrassing plot-hole that the entire thing hinges upon. To be clear, I don’t object at all to the mixed race romance, it’s just how poorly it’s deployed and engineered for maximum guilt relief. Awful.

Sing is my second favorite of the group. It’s about a Hungarian girl moving to a new school and joining the award-winning choir. She’s adjusting to new friends and her new environment when she discovers a devastating secret about the heralded choir teacher. It’s really honest and sweet about girl friendship. Sections reminded me of Fucking Åmål. And once the plot thickens, it gets straight to the conclusion without wasting time. Too many shorts wish they weren’t, but Sing embraces the format and goes out on a high note.

But the best of the group is Timecode. It’s the shortest and funniest Live Action nominee. A female parking guard finds out what the nightshift does to pass the time. She immediately finds herself passing messages to her counterpart using the CCTV security footage. It all culminates in a bizarre and beautiful modern art montage with one of the year’s best final lines. It’s my favorite kind of short, gets in, makes a turn, and gets out with humor and grace.

The Animated Shorts category is the weakest it’s been in years. Piper was in front of Finding Dory and therefore has the highest profile of the nominees. It also happens to be the best of the group. I think it's PIXAR's best short since La Luna. It finally finds a story to go with their photo-real experimentation. Cute, sweet, and funny with a deft touch. I’m most torn on Pearl. It’s from Patrick Osborne who won 2 years ago for the lovely Feast. It’s the first VR nominee ever, which I really don’t give a flying fig about. I want you to direct me where to look, not wander wherever. And I assume all that extra animating is why the animation is kind of hideous. That said, it’s a great conceit with a real emotional pull and that’s despite it feeling like a Super Bowl car ad, but like, a really good Super Bowl ad.

Blind Vaysha is the ‘80s post-modern experimental-looking film of the bunch. In other words, the pretentious one. It’s about a girl born with one eye that sees the past and one eye that sees the future. It has a great fairy tale quality about it and some fantastic visuals, but it’s not the underground classic it wishes it were. Borrowed Time is a western about regret. It’s okay. The themes it’s trying to get at don’t really pop in under 8 minutes. It feels like someone’s glorified thesis film. Lastly, there’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes the longest and most stylish of the nominees. It’s a biographical ode to the animator’s late, hard-living friend. The photoshop animation is limited but used creatively. It’s raw, honest, extremely personal, but meandering and lacking a real clear point. I wouldn’t mind the aimlessness at a shorter length, but while admirable it starts to feel indulgent.

This year, the least depressing Documentary Short is the one about a holocaust survivor, Joe’s Violin. It’s also my least favorite. It’s about Joe Feingold donating the violin he bought at the end of the war. It ends up at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls where it touches and inspires a talented young girl. When Joe is recounting his past, the short is simple and powerful. Unfortunately, the filmmakers sniff out the cloying high concept sitting right in front of them. They force connections between the two owners and eventually manufacture a meet and greet. It’s a very special NPR story with pictures.

Extremis is more straightforward but not much better. It’s basically a few vignettes in a hospital involving doctors and family members debating when to pull the plug on their loved ones. We get it. Life is hard with hard decisions. The film offers little else. Though it’s worth it for the utter disgust the doctor has on her face when someone without a PhD tries to doctor-splain to her.

Which leaves 3 good to great docs set in and around the Syrian crisis. Watani: My Homeland is about a Syrian family forced to flee their country after their father is kidnapped by ISIS. They end up in Germany where they must learn to adapt to a war-free way of life. The Germany material isn’t quite as strong because not much happens. But there are some interesting ideas here about where you find home and what it means to leave one behind. 4.1 Miles is more broadly about the migrant crisis. It follows one boat captain on the island of Lesbos and his daunting struggle to rescue thousands of refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean. This is similar to the feature doc nominee Fire at Sea. That film spent way too much time trying to show island life. This isn’t as artistic as Fire, but it makes up for it with bone-chilling immediacy. It sits on the edge of heroism and futility in a striking way. Finally, there’s The White Helmets which is probably the best doc short I’ve seen in 10 years. It’s about a group of first responders in Aleppo. Civilian volunteers who run toward the bombs to sift through the rubble for survivors. It’s not great solely based on subject matter though, it’s also crafted perfectly. The footage captured is incredible. But it also weaves together talking head testimonials with day to day camaraderie masterfully. To put it cheaply, it’s like the movie Twister but with real, tragic stakes. It’s the worst of humanity versus the best of us. It’s a great film.

And now I try to make some predictions. I think the subject matter of Ennemis Intérieurs makes it the “important” pick, and my favorite, Timecode, will be too weird for some, but I’m going with La Femme et le TGV because of name recognition and it’s the “pleasant” pick. PIXAR hasn’t won in forever, so it could be due. However, I think enough people saw Pearl on YouTube to fall for it or they’ll buy the VR novelty. While I’m scared the saccharine Joe’s Violin will sway some, I’m too blown away by The White Helmets to pick against it. We shall see.

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