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The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts Reviewed and Ranked

By  · Published on February 7th, 2017

Short-form Academy Award nominees hit theaters this week.

As with any anthology or program of short films, this year’s crop of nominees for the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short is a mixed bag. There are some films that are certain favorites and at least one where it’s hard to understand its recognition. The five films, which will screen together in theaters across the US starting this week thanks to Shorts HD, are an international bunch – well, a European bunch, hailing from Hungary, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, and France. Two are based on true stories, and interestingly enough two are set in the 1990s. The four good-to-great contenders are worth a recommendation to see them on the big screen as part of any Academy Awards completist’s mission this year.

Below I review and rank them in order of my favor. Unlike my first choice of the animated short nominees, I don’t expect my number one here to be the winner. This category is one of the most difficult to predict even if you’ve seen all the films, and I’m not ready yet to offer my official guess (maybe number two?). It’s unusual to see so many foreign-language films and nothing that’s already won a Student Academy Award. But they’re almost all relatively new directors, with one nominated for his debut. Each filmmaker should be taken note of as all, even the director of the short I don’t like, show a lot of promise. Maybe we’ll see some of them again in the Best Foreign Language Film category some day.

1. La Femme et le TGV

Jane Birkin as an aging Amelie is the vibe I got with this Swiss short by Timo von Gunten (whose other 2016 film, the Jeunet-esque feature Le Voyageur, is now something I’m dying to see). Birkin plays a widow baker in a cute little village who waves to the TGV express train twice a day as it passes her home. One day, she begins receiving letters and cheese from a man on the train, presumably the driver, and a friendship by correspondence ensues. It’s an old fashioned piece of whimsy that acknowledges its attempt to avoid modern touches when the main character says she’s never sent “an internet” and never will. I love the tone and the story of this half-hour film, which is inspired by true events, and could have watched another hour or more. Again, if it wins or even if it doesn’t, can we get more von Gunten films over here? He shares the nomination with producer Giacun Caduff.

2. Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within)

This one feels relevant, despite being set in France in the 1990s rather than the US right now. It’s the era of the Armed Islamic Group terrorist acts, and the film pretty much only takes place in an office as a man of Algerian descent (Hassam Ghancy) interviews to finally become a French citizen after living there for decades. Not only does the scene turn from questionnaire to interrogation, but the man is eventually threatened with deportation if he doesn’t give up names of people who took part in a seemingly innocent meeting. Ennemis Intérieurs is the directorial debut of Selim Azzazi, whose film credits are mostly in sound (he’s actually worked with Jeunet, among others), but it doesn’t feel like the work of a first timer. It is basically one scene with slight bits of flashback, and it’s really talky, but the performances are strong and there’s an intensity to the drama of the whole thing that holds our interest for 25 minutes.

3. Sing (Mindenki)

The word for this film is precious. Kristóf Deák, who has worked mostly as an editor including an early gig assisting on Steven Spielberg’s Munich, gets points for directing almost only children in the Hungarian short. And getting perfectly pure performances from them. In the recently post-socialist ‘90s, Zsófi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) is new to a school with a choir that wins many awards and yet is inclusive of all students who wish to join. But she sadly learns soon enough that being a member doesn’t necessarily mean being a singer. The conclusion might be predictable, but at least it has a complete narrative, which is more than can be said of a lot of shorts. Plus it’s apparently based on a true story. And it’s an ending that feels naturally derived from what takes place beforehand in the half-hour film. Deák shares the nomination with producer Anna Udvardy.

4. Timecode

I tend to groan when a short film involves people expressively dancing and that’s really the gist of the story, because that was kind of a cliche I experienced in film school. But the way it’s done in this Spanish production is kind of cute. Lali Ayguadé and Nicolas Ricchini play security guards at a parking garage, she with the day shift and he with the night, who wind up entertaining each other with dance performances documented by security cameras. Co-writer/director Juanjo Giménez Peña doesn’t take the idea anywhere that’s too interesting beyond that premise, but it has its charm for a good amount of its 15-minute running time.

5. Silent Nights

It’s not a proper bunch of live-action short Oscar contenders without something for me to despise, and this Danish film takes that cake. the half-hour film offers the story of a homeless shelter volunteer who falls for one of their clients, a Ghanese immigrant with a wife and children back home. And that’s not the limit to his disagreeable traits. Neither of the main characters is likable, so much that the female lead’s racist drunken mother almost comes across as the most appealing figure in the film. Filmmaker Aske Bang is fine enough as a director, but his script is awful to the very last scene, an ending that delivers a sour, rotten cherry on top. It’s a surprise misfire for Kim Magnusson, who has previously won two Oscars for producing live-action shorts and was nominated for three others.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.