2019 Oscar Nominated Film Shorts Programs
Once again the general public will have to opportunity to view something that was a regular part of the movie experience for many decades, the short subject. Throughout the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, the studios produced these smaller films (generally under an hour) that were usually shown in between two films (the great double feature). There were the cartoons made by the studio animation departments (Bugs Bunny from Warners, Tom and Jerry at MGM, and so forth), and the live-action shorts, often comedy (Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges) mixed with some closer to documentaries like the newsreel (pre-TV filmed events) and the travelogue (a film tour of world locales). With the advent of TV, most theatres stopped showing them and the major studios closed their divisions. The shorts then became the primary domain for independent filmmakers and continued to vie for Oscar nominations. Now, with the increasing streaming platforms and cable outlets, shorts are becoming more accessible now than in many years. Still, big screen programs, aside from film festivals, is a real rarity. With the Oscar ceremony just weeks away, film fans can indulge in a “cinema smorgasbord” and indulge in a buffet from three categories.
The most popular may be the films selected as Best Animated Short, though, like their live-action narrative brethren, most of these films share a theme, call it “parents and children”. Well, there one exception, of course, that would be the witty entry from the National Film Board of Canada (producer of many wonderful award-winning animated films for nearly 70 years) called “Animal Behavior”. Rendered in a magazine (New Yorker mainly) style, it looks at a group therapy session (chairs in a circle) for animals (a pig, a leech, a praying mantis, etc.) with a dog in charge trying to deal with a new member, an annoyed gorilla. The rest fit squarely in the “theme”, the best known being “Bao” which did run in theatres last Summer paired off with INCREDIBLES 2 (Pixar nearly always runs a short before each new feature). It’s a fable (the only one in the group told in rounded 3D CGI style) in which a lonely woman is stunned when a dumpling she has prepared for Dinner, suddenly springs to life. Naturally, she raises it as her child (a son), and we see them dealing with the whole maturing cycle from infant to teen. A very different look at parenting is shown in “Weekends” in which a grade-school aged boy lives with his harried single mom during the week and is picked up on Friday by his fun-loving pop and whisked away to his high-rise apartment/funhouse. There’s almost no dialogue and the art has a “scratchy” rendering looking like ballpoint pen scribblings in a school notebook. The program’s two highlights are “Once Small Step” which begins with a young Asian-American girl watching that famous newcast, fueling her dreams of exploring space. The dream is encouraged by her single dad who works below their home as a shoe repairman (hmmm, another fairy tale nod). Again no dialogue, but with slick multicolored outlined characters that seem right out of a polished children’s’ book. The parent/child roles are flipped in the final entry “Late Afternoon” which centers on an elderly woman enjoying her visit from a caregiver (but is she more than that). While the lady sips from her tea, each image around her triggers distant memories (running along the beach, writing in the sand,etc.) until her fog is lifted in the heartwrenching final moments. The art is a lively mix of simple line drawings, bright vibrant colors, and gorgeous watercolor-like backdrops. Each film has something to entertain and recommend (I’d have a tough time choosing if I were in the Academy).
For the Best Live Action Shorts, the previous theme is a twisted variation, you could say (with a nod to the classic Who rock anthem) “The Kids are Not All Right”. Indeed they are in dire, deadly danger in all but one entry. that one is the sweetly nostalgic “Marguerite”, Like “Late Afternoon”, it’s a French-Canadian tale of an elderly woman and her visiting caregiver/nurse. Their conversations sparks her mind to recall a forbidden, unrequited love from long. long ago, reminding us that the “good ole’ days” were not so “good” for so many. Now, on to the “rough stuff”. From the same land comes “Fauve” about a lazy day in the country (climbing an old train car. running around a construction site) turns into a race against doom for two pre-teen boys. Speaking of a “race to doom”, that sums up most of the Spanish entry “Madre”. As the title infers, the main subjects are mothers (yes, the plural). The main setting is an apartment where a woman and her mother pop in to bicker and change for Lunch. Things take a turn when the home owner’s six-year-old son makes a frantic phone call to her, which puts both mother and grandmother nearly into hysterics. Like the recent films LOCKE and THE GUILTY, the story is told via one part of the phone conversation (leaving us to imagine the caller’s dire straights just as the main characters). But where’s the USA, why represented by “Skin”, which centers on a young boy of eight or nine, the only son of a young couple who are, as said in LADY BIRD, from “the other side of the tracks”. Though they dote on the lad, we soon find out that the couple (the dad particularly) are violent racists. After a horrific attack ( a true hate crime), a “Tales From the Crypt”-like revenge plot is put into motion, resulting in an “O Henry” twist at first funny then whiplashing into true tragedy. The real standout of this batch comes from Ireland. “Detainment” is the controversial docudrama whose dialogue is directly taken from Police interview tapes of the two ten-year-old suspects in the infamous 1993 “Baby James” crime in Bootle, England. Though difficult to watch (I can’t imagine a full-length feature). the film hits with the impact of cinematic sledgehammer aided in great part by the two young lead actors: Ely Sloan as the emotional, terrified Jon and Leon Hughes as the cold calculating Robert. Never exploitive of the crime, the film is a testament to the police officers quest to learn the truth while having to deal with the parents , who were required to be on hand for the questioning (it’s quite the tightrope walk as they must navigate carefully). All of these films are compelling, even as the viewer is put through the “emotional ringer”.
Finally, the Best Documentary Shorts also share a theme (well four of the five) as they profile people battling against overwhelming forces, in short, “struggle”. Most unusual may be the entry from India, with a title ripe with many meanings, “Period. End of Sentence”. It begins with an overview of a subject not really discussed in that society: menstruation. Interviews bring home the lack of knowledge (it’s a mystery to most men on camera) and the problems facing young women. The film shifts gears as we meet a man determined to bring hygiene to the villages via sanitary pad vending machines by hiring local women to produce the pads and be traveling suppliers. It’s an engaging look at a culture that’s finally changing. The majority of this program comes from the USA. “Lifeboat” follows a German barge that helps rescue fleeing refugees at sea (many don’t survive on the makeshift rafts, barrels, and tubs). There’s a message of hope despite the near unending stream of desperate, nomadic peoples. Those rescue crews are heroes, as much as the staff of the Zen Hospice Project we meet in “End Game” as they ease terminal patients into their last days. We meet four or five of these residents, but the film’s heart may be with one that decides to stay in the hospital, in hope of new treatments. The intimate scenes of Mitra with her family (her husband and mother often clash) and doctors are quite moving. A brief (seven minutes) history lesson shines a light on a now unthinkable incident from 1939. “A Night at the Garden” documents (using black and white home-movie-like footage and audio recordings) a pro-Nazi rally attended by 20,000 in New York City (the title “Garden” is Madison Square). Though touted as a night celebrating “American patriotism”, there are lots of swastikas on stage (on both sides of Old Glory) to frame the speakers spewing anti-semitic rhetoric. Hatred is a big topic in the most compelling of the program, UK’s “Black Sheep”. In stark close-up, Cornelius Walker tells the story of his Nigerian family who moved from their London high rise apartment (after the high-profile murder there of a schoolboy from their homeland) to one of the”safer” remote villages. Walker relates his shock at the casual bigotry he faced, which led to a brutal beating by a local teen gang. With great emotion, Walker then tells us of his shocking response. Rather than retaliating, he believed that in order to survive he needed to join them, even bleaching his skin, spiking his hair, and wearing bright blue contact lenses. The tale is both compelling and heartbreaking, with Walker’s monologue illustrated with dream-like recreations. All five are engrossing while sharing a similar spirit among different times, locales, and subjects.
Any or all of these programs are well worth any film fan’s time.
The 2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films Programs are screening in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre