Wednesday, February 24, 2016
OSCARS 2016: The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts
One of the most exciting things about Oscar season for me is the oppretunity to watch films I would never otherwise see. There is no other category at the Academy Awards more overlooked than the short films. I’ve heard people dismiss short films as “not real movies.” Considering that even many cinephilies skip the short nominees despite the films being more available now than ever, that isn’t an uncommon opinion. It’s also a bunch of bullshit. If you can’t tell a good story in ten minutes, you can’t tell a good story in two hours. Filmmakers who make shorts are the future of the industry.
Most years, I start with the animated shorts because I usually enjoy them more. However, instead of distributing the shorts to OnDemand services separately, this year both categories are packaged together. The reason I usually save the live action shorts for later… Well, there’s no good way to say this. Films in this category are usually downers, dealing with depressing real world topics. 2016 is no different in that regard. Religious conflict, the war atrocities in Kosovo, the on-going conflict in the Middle East, divorce, and stuttering are all topics on display this evening. The big difference is that 2016’s batch of nominated shorts are all pretty good!
The first of the nominees this year is also the most light-hearted. You’ll be forgiven for not expecting that, considering “Ave Maria” is about different religious beliefs colliding in Palestine. A Catholic nunnery in the West Bank of Palestine is home to five nuns, each undergoing a vow of silence. This is interrupted when Israeli travelers suffer some automobile problems, crashing into their statue of the Virgin Mary. With Shabbat just starting, the devout husband can’t operate machinery. The grandmother grips at everyone while the wife mostly sits back. Despite their conflicting beliefs, the two groups eventually work out a solution.
“Ave Maria’ is a culture clash comedy and gets some decent laughs out of that set-up. The youngest nun is the first to break the vow of silence and continues to subtly strive against her beliefs. After the statue of Mary is decapitated, the wife ties the head back on with her scarf. Being unable to operate machinery because of the Sabbath, the husband insist the nun holds a phone up to his mouth. His reaction to realizing that the nuns eat ham is very funny. The final sequence in the film, where the travelers receive a new vehicle that doesn’t fit them, is an amusing note to take us out on. The low-key, character-oriented atmosphere cements the bigger gags. The comedy allows an important message, of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence, to land softly and effectively. [7/10]
“Shok” begins with two men riding through the Albanian countryside, one man stopping to pick up a bicycle in the road. After that, “Shok” flashes back to the Kosovo War of the late nineties. Two Albanian boys, Petrit and Oki, try to have normal lives during the Serbian occupation. Petrit is selling the Serbian soldiers rolling papers for cigarettes, behavior that makes Oki nervous. An especially tense encounter has the soldiers stealing Oki’s new bicycle. The friendship is strained but eventually healed after another stand-off with the soldiers. Tragedy intervenes by the film’s end.
“Friend” is heavy, obviously, dealing with a dark and ugly part of world history. Jamie Donoughue’s story does a good job of grounding a conflict most Americans probably aren’t familiar with in common humanity. The story of Petrit and Oki’s changing friendship is something any one can relate too. The presence of the Serbian army creates a mounting tension, a fear in the audience that something bad will eventually happen. It does, of course, but Donoughue doesn’t overdo it, allowing a shocking moment to speak for itself. Andi Bajgora and Lum Veseli’s performances are very good and the final shot is haunting. [7/10]
Everything Will Be Okay
Alles wird gut
Like “Shok,” “Everything Will Be Okay” also has a quiet tension running through the entire film. Recently divorced from his wife, Michael picks up their young daughter Lea for a father-daughter’s day out. They head to the toy store, Michael buying the girl whatever she wants, regardless of price. Soon, it becomes apparent that Michael has other plans. On the way to the fair, he stops by an office and signs emergency passports. After spending some time at the bumper cars, Michael takes Lea to the airport. By this point, even the little girl realizes what is happening. Michael is kidnapping his own daughter. A delayed flight and Lea taking action cause an inevitable confrontation between Michael and his ex-wife.
“Everything Will Be Okay” benefits from a naturalistic approach. There’s very little music. Julia Pointner acts like a real little girl as Lea. Scenes of her eating chicken McNuggets in the car or goofing around inside a picture booth makes her feel like a real person. These scenes also establish how much Michael cares about his daughter. The first scene has him nervously pacing outside his ex-wife’s home, waiting for her to bring the girl out. This sets up an early sense of anxiety. Both of these feeling reach a climax during the devastating ending. After Lea calls her mother, the police knock at the door of Michael’s hotel room. Weeping, he hugs his young daughter, trying to make her understand how he’ll have nothing left without her. The police have to pry them apart, a heartbreaking moment. Michael is pathetic and deeply human, though your sympathy for him is limited, considering what he’s doing. Mostly, the short film left me feeling bad for little Lea. Despite the title being repeated within the film twice, it’s clear that everything will not be okay for her. “Everything Will Be Okay” is powerful and deeply sad, easily the best of the nominees. [9/10]
“Stutterer’s” title indicates its topic. Greenwood is a young man crippled by his stutter. The first scene has him struggling to pay his internet bill over the phone, unable to spit out more than a few words. Conversations with his father are strangled. Because of his speech impediment, Greenwood pursues online relationships. He’s currently courting a girl named Ellie, who he’s been e-mailing for six months. When Ellie asks to meet in person, Greenwood has a crisis. Should he risk loosing this meaningful relationship because of his inability to speak?
“Stutterer” has a wonderful lead performance from Matthew Needham. He’s charming in his awkwardness without loosing the deep affect his condition has on him. Something I really like about “Stutterer” is how it illustrates thought. In his head, Greenwood speaks clearly, making snide comments about people around him. Yet the thoughts in his head are rarely concise or focused, frequently overlapping. You know, the way people actually think. There’s not too much substance to “Stutterer” but it’s not telling a complex story. Instead, it’s a sweet story leading to an incredibly nice conclusion. [8/10]
In a slight irony, the only U.S.A. produced short this year still features dialogue that is mostly subtitled. Feda is starting her first day as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, her first job. In Afghanistan, she quickly becomes the middleman in a tense situation. While searching a home for explosives, a man’s pregnant wife goes into labor. The baby is breached and, at first, believed dead. Feda has to fill a position she isn’t trained for, that of a doctor, attempting to save the life of both the woman and her unborn child.
The best aspect of “Day One” is how inexperienced Feda is. The short begins with her getting her period in the shower. While other soldiers lead her up a hill, the thinner oxygen causes her to struggle to breath. After a road side bomb goes off, she runs away from the explosion, terrified. Once the attention turns towards the pregnancy, it’s clear that Feda is over her head. Yet she also has skills of her own. While the soldiers detain the man, Feda talks candidly with his young niece, cowering in a corner. Eventually, “Day One” becomes a little too maudlin for its own good. The ending is unnecessarily down-beat. Yet Layla Alizada’s lead performance is very good and the film progresses nicely. [7/10]
Unlike the feature categories, it’s much harder to predict who will win in the short film categories. “Everything Will Be Okay” is clearly my favorite of the nominees while I also liked “Stutterer” a lot. Yet I can imagine the heaviness of “Friend” or “Day One” appealing to Academy voters. Who knows. Either way, I mostly enjoyed this year’s crop of films, each one doing something well.