By Elias Savada.
With less than a month before we find out how many Academy Awards The Shape of Water will actually win, the short list of the shortest films are usually the last entries that most people, even critics, will catch before game night: Sunday, March 4th. Between those 15 movies and the foreign film finalists – usually one or two of which haven’t been released in theatres or on demand in the U.S.A. – those cineastes who hope to pick winners in all these four categories will probably revert to darts or pin-the-tail-on-the donkey scenarios for their selections.
Over the last several years, most of the short subjects have been compiled and shown in art house circuits. This year, courtesy of Landmark Theatres and Shorts International, the films have been broken into four programs. The 50 minutes of Animated Shorts has been buffed up with three additional items (tentatively Loan Property Office, Coin Operated, and Achoo), so viewers should get somewhere near 83 minutes of entertainment. The rest can be seen in Live Action Shorts and split programs for the Documentary Shorts.
The Live Action Shorts program runs about 97 minutes and is an international smorgasbord featuring two films from the United States, one represented the U.K., another from Germany, and one from Australia. DeKalb Elementary from L.A.-based director-writer Reed Van Dyk (who, like me, has a B.A. in Theater Arts from Cornell University). It’s a harrowing character piece that examines the unlikely relationship between a calm-under-fire elementary school receptionist (Tarra Riggs) and a mentally-unstable man (Bo Mitchell) who arrives at school with angry, confused intentions and a loaded rifle. My Nephew Emmett, which played at last year’s DC Shorts Film Festival, is a powerful, slow-reveal story from Kevin Wilson, Jr., about a Mississippi preacher (L.B. Williams) trying to protect his Chicago-born teenage nephew (Joshua Wright) from racist killers in August 1955. The somber production design and deliberately cautious camerawork effectively dramatizes the quiet moments leading up to the actual, infamous day in our nation’s past. On the lighter side is The Eleven O’Clock, an Australian comedy directed by Derin Seale and written by lead actor Josh Lawson (a.k.a. House of Lies’ oafish Doug Guggenheim), playing a Dr. Terry Phillips, psychiatrist with a new patient, Dr. Nathan Klein (Damon Herriman). One has a severe personality disorder, one doesn’t. The dialogue moves along briskly like an escalating “Who’s on First” routine. British entry The Silent Child, a sad affair, introduces Maisie Sly as Libby, a four-year-old deaf girl, in a family of frantic overachievers who basically ignore her. Joanne (Rachel Shenton), a newly installed speech therapist, makes an impact on the girl – all to the better – but Libby’s mother (Rachel Fielding) believes her daughter would be better off enhancing her lip reading rather than sign language skills. Actor Chris Overton’s first short film as an indie director spins a small story out of a family’s challenges to understand the people who live in a world without sound. Watu Wote – All of Us is a German film (the winner of the last year’s DC Shorts Audience Award) which tackles religious differences between Muslims and Christians in the border region between Kenya and Somalia, where Al-Shabaab terrorists attack a bus. A Christian woman (Adelyne Wairimu), scared and bitter over a personal tragedy, is protected by Muslim passengers when the vehicle is stopped by the militants. Julia Drache’s script is based on a true event from which director Katja Benrath has painted a strikingly immersive tale.
The two programs for the longish (29-40 minutes each) Documentary Shorts straddle both lighter and darker fare. There’s also the requisite HBO Documentary Film submission, Traffic Stop, from Peabody Award-winning Kate Davis (director) and David Heilbroner (producer). It’s might be the last time the retiring (from HBO) executive producer Sheila Nevins’s name adorns an Oscar contender. Under her watch, the HBO documentary unit has won an astounding 26 Academy Awards. The half-hour film premieres on the network on February 19th (with previews three days earlier on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand). It blends 2015 police dash cam footage showing the harrowing arrest in Austin of African-American math and dance teacher Breaion King, for a minor traffic violation, coupled with recent footage showing her resilience and determination to rise above the race issue invasive within some segments of law enforcement.
On the lighter side, Frank Steifel’s Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405, is a poignant portrait of Brooklyn-born, Los Angles-raised, extraordinarily talented artist Mindy Alper, whose life has been a roller coaster of depression and mental disorder. With a backdrop of family mementos and home movies, Alper is the talking head who reveals a life (work, family, mental health) that has been hard. This fascinating film is a compassionate look at a transformative artist. (It’s available free at Indiewire!). Laura Checkoway’s Edith+Eddie is a love story for the ages. The titular duo, at ages 96 and 95, are the United States’ oldest interracial newlyweds. I remember the local news story a few years ago about them, bonding over a winning lottery ticket and getting hitched. And being saddened that Edith’s family put up such a noticeably ugly stink. This Kartemquin Films presentation takes that story a step further by showing how in sync the couple’s lives are, whether inserting their dentures in the morning, or doing daily exercises. For these young’uns, love is colorblind. For Edith’s daughter, it is a tragic call to arms.
From Netflix (where it has been streaming since September 12th) comes Peabody Award-winner Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Heroin(e), a depressing/uplifting examination of Huntington, West Virginia’s attempt to deal with the opioid crisis. The epidemic has hit this once bustling industrial town hard, with overdoses at 10 times the national rate. This is a compassionate story showcasing Jan Rader, the local fire chief, Judge Patricia Keller, and Brown Bag Ministry’s Necia Freeman, as they collectively offer novel search-and-rescue solutions to the escalating problem. Thomas Lennon, the only director among this year’s short docs to have previously won an Oscar (2006, for The Blood of Yingzhou District) has his fourth nomination with Knife Skills, a bright, delectable fill of culinary delight that spotlights the opening of Edwins restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. The twist in creating a professional, classic French cuisine destination in the state’s second largest city by restauranteur Brandon Chrostowski is with his unusual staff, made up of people recently released from prison. Few of the 80 recruits have any experience in the hospitality industry. The frantic pressure in the kitchen (with the camera in their faces), might cause some of these ex-cons to wonder how they stumbled into this place. The film follows several former inmates as they train in pressure-cooker chaos, while their first names, crimes, and sentence is flashed across the screen. Even Brandon was in their shoes once, for drug possession and evading arrest. In the intense span of six weeks, teaching these non-professionals the art of fine dining takes on a delightful, salivating urgency. While patrons dine on fine food, Brandon and his EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute are feeding hope to it staff. Très honorable. You’ll be real hungry after this passionate, socially-conscious morsel. While the food battle line proves too intense for some (and for all the successes, it’s real disheartening to see the few agonizing setbacks), but many end up being served fresh hope with a side of pride.
And the winners are….
Read also Gary Kramer, “Big Dreams and Odd Dwellings: 2018 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts”
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).