It’s that special time of year when movie theaters all over America start playing short films. Some places are hosting a total of 15 of them. Most of those participating, though, will be screening only 10. The shorts receiving this privileged exhibition are the Oscar nominees in the three categories devoted to the best in cinema of a length of 40 minutes or less. Thanks to ShortsHD, each category – live-action, animated and documentary – are showing separately (docs in fewer theaters), and all five contenders for each are included. You can find them in a theater near you (find one here) beginning this Friday.
Continuing our review and ranking of the 2016 Oscar-nominated shorts, below is my take on the live-action category. Unlike the animated group (see my take on those), these narrative live-action shorts are all pretty strong. Each one has little things for me to nitpick in order to put them in an order of worst to best, but all together they make for a theatrical program that I’m happy to endorse. All of the filmmakers are first-time nominees, with two of them recent Student Academy Award winners, and none of their shorts have movie stars, which I feel is rare these days. It wasn’t just a tough category to rank this year but it’s also tough to predict. Just go see them all and don’t worry about the Oscars.
The debut film of writer/director Benjamin Cleary gets the romance slot this year, and boy is it cute. Greenwood is a shy young typographer who is great with words and coming up with stories, but he’s a severe stutterer who is learning sign language just to communicate better in person, or at least use it as a mechanism to avoid talking. He’s in an online relationship with Ellie, and after six months of only chatting on Facebook Messenger they get a chance to meet in person. Of course Greenwood is hesitant to accept the date due to his speech impediment. Will Ellie still like him if she can’t have one of their great conversations off computer?
Let me get it out of the way that this 12-minute film is very, very predictable and moves towards an ironic conclusion that makes it a kind of punchline-driven short. Fortunately, it’s still a sweet story executed in clever ways. There’s a very effective use of voiceover to show how much clearer and more confident Greenwood is in his mind, whether he’s making up backstories of random strangers he watches on the way to work or he’s planning out what he’s going to say to people as he’s on the way to see them. The latter stuff should be relatable to a lot of viewers, even if they don’t stutter. Cleary also features a lot of online chat dialogue, which isn’t really avoidable, but it’s also never something that plays well cinematically.
Could it win? As likable as it is, Stutterer is not only the weakest of the five films, it’s also the least probable to win.
The first Albanian/Kosovan film nominated for an Oscar depicts a tragic tale based on a true story. An Albanian man in the present flashes back to his childhood during the Kosovo war, when he and his best friend got into a bit of trouble with Serbian soldiers. Petrit and Oki start off happy go lucky, riding around together on Oki’s new bicycle, and they even seem to get along okay with some of the armed Serbs. Until one of them decides he wants Oki’s bike. Written and directed by Jamie Donoughue, the 21-minute short is the latest in a long cinematic tradition of depicting horrible conflicts and bloodshed through the eyes of kids.
I won’t spoil the ending of Shok (which translates as “friend,” by the way), but it’s what almost ruined this film for me. It’s a big moment played as small, sudden, quick, without a satisfying dramatic response. I’m also not a fan of the cliche bookending device that does nothing for the actual story in between. As for what does work for me, the two kids are good enough, and I’m glad that there’s a film set during this little-remembered war, which was truly awful. Sadly (for humans, not the film), this a universal kind of story that would fit a lot of similar conflict settings and situations in recent history. You can easily picture it redone with Jewish kids and Nazis or Palestinian kids and Israeli soldiers or youths of any occupied and/or suppressed group and members of the occupying army.
Could it win? It’s believed to be the frontrunner by some, but that ending might be too dark and unexpected for voters.
3. Ave Maria
The premise of Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria could also be the set up for a joke, except as told it’d be too convoluted. An Israeli family trying to get out of the West Bank before nightfall crash their car outside a remote convent, where a handful of nuns have taken a vow of silence. The Orthodox Jewish trio need the help of the devout Catholic women, and at first it’s a real struggle. The Israeli patriarch is uneasy about pork shanks hanging in the kitchen, though not as troubled as he is about being in Arab territory after dark. He also can’t personally use the phone (which is a rotary type, for more laughs) to call a taxi because it’s suddenly the Sabbath, but the nuns can’t speak so they don’t make the situation any easier.
Despite the intricacies of the plot, this 15-minute film is pretty funny. The comedy is mostly at the expense of very faithful religious people, but not in a disrespectful way. It’s really at the expense of rules in general and when it’s okay or necessary to break them. And there is some stereotyping with the characters, particularly a nagging Israeli mother-in-law, yet it never feels false nor does it get in the way. I like that there is no Palestinian character to round things out. A lot of filmmakers would have unnecessarily included one. There is a sort of phantom Arab presence throughout so it’s better without. It’s also great that even though this starts with a set up of a joke, there’s not a punchline ending since the punchline is everything that happens over the course of the short.
Could it win? Along with Shok, this is the only film I’ve seen predicted to be the winner, and if voters decide to go for something lighter and funnier it will be.
2. Day One
Inspired by an experience he had while serving as a paratrooper in Afghanistan, co-writer and director Henry Hughes made this 25-minute short as his thesis project at the American Film Institute. Last year it won the top prize (Gold Medal) in the narrative category at the Student Academy Awards, and now it’s probably going to win the real Oscar, as well. Set in the Afghanistan War, the film is about an interpreter on her first day, which starts out a little awkward and then winds up being more difficult than she could possibly have imagined – because of something that has nothing to do with the military conflict. It’s a war movie that deals with life and death on a level that’s bigger than any combat situation.
Day One is a very impressive work for a student film – or for any short film production, really. There’s quality in every aspect of its making. If there’s anything at all keeping it from being the best of the nominees, for me, it’s the story. Regardless of whether it happened, the situation of someone not trained to deliver a baby having to deliver a baby is not that interesting. Especially when it takes up most of the length of a film, which starts out seeming to be more about a variety of first-day drama. I get that there needs to be that other stuff as a set up to contrast with the birthing task, but it could have been a little more balanced or focused. This is admittedly very nitpicky, because I had to find some reason why it’s ranked lower than the next film. They’re both great, very different, and hard to compare.
Could it win? I’m predicting this one to take the Oscar, but this category is a tough one to call this year.
1. Everything Will Be Okay
After being nominated and placing third (Bronze Medal) in last year’s Student Academy Awards foreign category, Everything Will Be Okay (Alles wird gut) is now in the big leagues and should take the prize. Written and directed by Patrick Vollrath, this German film is about a divorced father who picks up his little girl for what seems to be a normal weekend of part-time custody. But as their day together continues, it goes off in a different direction than usual. I’d just come out and say what transpires, because it’s clear soon enough in the 30-minute short, but I’ll respect the synopsis’s lack of spoiling it all.
Although this film does have a great build up before it’s certain where it’s going, it’s still more of a character-driven drama than plot-driven. There’s not much of a story, really, just events unfolding and how the characters act during those events. I love that this is a short, because I’ve seen plenty of features like it, with similar sort of subject matter and tone, and they can be a bit of a slog when stretched out so long. This is the perfect length, perfectly paced and perfectly performed – the child actress (Julia Pointner) in particular is exceptional. Given the kind of movie it is, I can’t help but compare hers to the heavier, less natural performance of the kid in fellow Oscar nominee Room. Everything Will Be Okay is a sad movie but also a strong one in just about every way.
Could it win? It should, which means it won’t.