By Elias Savada.
Another year and another Academy Awards show looms large, filled with commentary about snubs and surprises and a program, the first in decades, without a host. While many of us wonder which film will take home the statuette (my personal favorite remains Green Book, but Roma seems to be gaining traction), you might want to check the online oddsmakers before placing your bets. The awards show is a fleeting evening of glamour and glitz, suitable for commentary the morning after at the water cooler and on the various entertainment-themed tv shows. The day after the morning after, it’s mostly old news.
Be that as it may, the films given shortest shrift are often the shorts themselves, although two of the three segments will still be presented live. This years’ ceremony will dole out the cinematography, film editing, live-action short, and makeup/hairstyling Oscars during commercial breaks (but live streamed at Oscars.com). Most of the short subjects are rarely caught by anyone before (or after) the show. Quite a few of this year’s contenders is available online now (click on any hot links below and you can watch), but to best absorb them all, catch the ShortsTV presentations of all the nominees now unreeling at various Landmark Theatres.
Let’s take a look at each program.
The 56 minutes of nominated Animated Shorts has been buffed up with two additional items (Wishing Box and Tweet Tweet) for a respectable 73-minute running time. Pixar’s Bao, which screened in front of that company’s Incredibles 2, does seem like the frontrunner, although its Lucy lost out at last year’s show in favor of Dear Basketball, the Kobe Bryant-produced retirement poem. Domee Shi’s film examines a woman’s tender, changing love for her child – an anthromorphized Chinese dumpling. I’d put my dough on this CGI effort. One Small Step, a USA-China collaboration from Disney veterans Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontilla, offers a heartwarming tale of a Chinese-American girl-then-woman whose dreams of space travel are fostered by her humble father. Weekends, from Pixar employee Trevor Jimenez, is closer in style to the work of Henry Selick. The hand-animated film, set in 1980s Toronto, provides a sad and often surrealistic examination of a family torn apart by divorce. Ireland’s Late Afternoon from Louise Bagnall follows an elderly woman whose memories bridge temporal moments in her life. Animal Behaviour, a quirky National Film Board of Canada is the funniest of the batch. Directors Alison Snowden and David Fine, who previously collaborated on the Oscar-nominated Second Class Mail, provides an unusual look at group therapy as a cross species gathering led by the best-selling psychotherapist (“Heel and Become Your Own Master”) Dr. Leon Clement, a dog. Very tongue-in-cheek dialogue sprouts amongst his angst-ridden patients (an ape, a leech, a mantis, a pig, a blue jay, and a tabby cat – voiced by Snowden) during a frantic session. If Academy voters pin their ballots to outrageous comedy (and perhaps their own therapy sessions), this might be the upset in this batch.
The Live Action Shorts program, not particularly child-friendly, is a somber set running 109 minutes. It features five one-word titles ranging from 17 to 30 minutes in length, with a breakdown that brings two films from Quebec, one from Spain, an Irish entry, and a striking film from the United States. The latter, Skin, by Israeli Guy Nattiv, is a harrowing nightmare about race relations gone awry in a blue collar town. Fox Searchlight picked up the short for social media streaming (soon, I hope), and the director has already expanded the idea into a fictional feature starring Jamie Bell and Vera Farmiga, due out later this year. Just as powerful is Detainment, a bravely acted tragedy from Irish filmmaker that focuses on two young and very terrified boys being interrogated for the 1993 murder of James Bulger. This is my pick. Of the two French Canadian films, Fauve spins a heart-wrenching tale of two boys playing alone in a backwoods world, until an event drives one into a harrowing funk. Jeremy Comte directs his two youngsters with strong, lean determination. Marianne Farley approaches her subject and film, Marguerite, with a tenderness not found in the other entries. It’s a gentle look at a friendship between an aging woman and her young nurse. Lastly, Rodrigo Sorogoyen offers up the Spanish effort, Madre, the weakest of the bunch (of very good films), about a frantic mother who receives a dire phone call from her 7-year-old son, and the nightmare the situation becomes.
The rather long (143 minutes) Documentary Shorts program offers a solid lineup. Two (Period. End of Sentence and End Game) are available as originals on Netflix. The first, an empowering, life-changing tale from Iranian-American director Rayka Zehtabchi, looks at the harsh, disturbing ignorance about menstruation that envelopes India, as studied in a rural, farming community in the Hapur District, 60 kilometers from New Delhi. The second title, a grace-filled effort from Academy Award-winning producer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, examines end-of-life issues that occur at the UCSF Medical Center and the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. Doctors, patients, family, and staff share equal screen time in dealing with informative decisions about palliative and hospice care. Black Sheep, a U.K. production from Ed Perkins (online courtesy of The Guardian), is a compelling, in-your-face talking head/staged reconstruction effort about Cornelius Walker, a young man of Nigerian ancestry who escaped the violence of London to suburban Essex. He lightens his skin and wears light blue contact lenses in an attempt to assimilate to his new, racially-insensitive community. I’m not a fan of the reenactment documentary style, even if the film is a gripping, disturbing tale. Lifeboat, another American entry from Skye Fitzgerald, embeds itself with a German welfare effort in the Mediterranean to rescue Libyan refugees heading to Europe. Like previous nominees Fire at Sea (on Netflix) and 4.1 Miles, this tugs at the heartstrings that surround a worldwide crisis. Finally, Marshall Curry’s A Night at the Garden, like Penny Lane’s absorbing feature Our Nixon, uses only archival footage to tell the forgotten 1939 moment in New York City’s Madison Square Garden history, when 20,000 American Nazis gathered to pay homage to anti-Semitism, complete with a horrifying on-stage fracas. Fox News turned down a 30-second teaser for the 7-minure short, set to air during Sean Hannity’s show and framed as a cautionary warning against the present fascist climate the program fosters. According to Fox, “The ad in question is full of disgraceful Nazi imagery regardless of the film’s message and did not meet our guidelines.” Let the polarizing continue. Based on the Academy’s generally left-leaning, anti-Trump leanings, I wouldn’t be surprised if this one triumphs.
So, tune in February 24th and see who the winners are.