Just when I thought this year’s Oscars couldn’t get any worse, I watched the nominees in the Best Short Film (Live Action) category. I don’t know if this is the worst batch the Academy has ever managed to compile for consideration, but it’s a pretty bad bunch. Some of the films are downright insulting where they mean to be bold and inclusive. Not unlike Green Book, actually.
Quality aside, this year’s crop of live-action short nominees is also quite upsetting to any parents of young children, especially young boys. Four of the five films put boys through some terrible traumas, and a few of them extend that misery, on screen, to their moms and dads. As a collection playing together theatrically, I can’t really recommend them unless you’re an Oscar nominations completist.
As usual, ahead of these shorts being available in theaters (starting February 8th) and then on VOD (starting February 19th) via ShortsTV, I’ve reviewed and ranked the nominees from least favorite to my preferred winner. I’ve also tried to guess what the voters will pick as the winner of the Academy Award.
Unbelievable on two counts — the premise is ridiculous and so is the fact that anyone thought the project a good idea — this 20-minute Twilight Zone episode wannabe is also just plain offensive. The film follows the family of a neo-Nazi gang member who, with his fellow racist buddies, beats a black man nearly to death one night. As payback, the victim’s own associates kidnaps the neo-Nazi and give him full-on permanent blackface, all over his body, with tattoo ink.
That’s as far as I’ll spoil, but suffice to say what happens next is more predictable anyway, if still not entirely plausible. For some reason, co-writer/director Guy Nattiv (who also, interestingly enough also has a new unrelated feature also titled Skin about a real-life reformed neo-Nazi) only focuses on the white group of racists as — still minimally — developed characters, to the point where their terrible hateful music is blasted on the soundtrack. Actually, I don’t really understand any of the choices made regarding any part of this film.
Speaking of wrongheaded films that seem to have meant to tackle their subject matter more progressively, Marguerite is an LGBT film that might intend to show a sensitivity but winds up kind of distasteful instead. The plot centers on an elderly woman who learns her nurse is a lesbian. At first, the look on the woman’s face implies that we’re going to be dealing with someone who isn’t used to gay people, if not exactly intolerant. But no, she starts looking at old photos and it turns out that she once loved a female friend of hers but never told her.
If the idea here was just to present a character study of someone who is a lesbian and remained closeted because “times were different then,” as she says, that would be fine to explore. But instead, with her film, writer/director Marianne Farley reduces lesbians to a sexual curiosity. “What’s it like to make love to a woman?” she asks her nurse the next day. “It’s beautiful,” the nurse answers. As if it could be such an absolute and basically defined difference from what she knows. Then, without spoiling too much, I’ll just say the nurse takes the situation over the line of professional and personal and communal respect. It’s a very outdated kind of perspective. But I could see voters being outdated, too, and this is my first guess of the winner, especially since it stands out as having no harmed young boys.
Filmmaker Rodrigo Sorogoyen is also currently at work on a feature of the same name as his short. Maybe it will actually be an adaptation and extension of this short, unlike what Nattiv has done. Continuing to develop the story of the short version of Mother would make sense, as this does feel like a 19-minute teaser for something bigger. But then it would also make this just a 19-minute teaser for something bigger. Proof of concept shorts are fine, but not for awards consideration.
The plot of Mother is simple: a woman in Spain gets a call from her six-year-old son, who is stranded on an unknown beach in France. He’s off on holiday with his father, but his father has disappeared. We only really see the woman and her own mother panicking at the woman’s home as they try to get some details from the boy, whose phone battery is dying. And something even worse might be happening. There’s not much to appreciate cinematically with this single location film where the characters are just on the phone, and it’s a bit of a cheap thrill the way it handles the scenario. It’s a more literal horror movie for parents than last year’s trio of A Quiet Place, Bird Box, and Hereditary.
There’s a case that could be made that Detainment should also qualify for the documentary short Oscar, though I don’t know that it’d be nominated. The half-hour film is based on transcripts of police interviews with Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the English boys who were convicted of torturing and murdering two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. But it is all reenactment and presumed dramatization. And the boys they’ve gotten to play Thompson and Venables are really terrific. They drive the film with their emotionally draining performances.
But outside of being an exercise in putting two young actors through such difficult work, the point of the film is lost on me. Writer/director Vincent Lambe does a fine job of re-creating the scenes in the police stations, and the stuff depicting the boys’ abduction of baby James and leading him to the site of his killing. To what end? I’m And to top things off, Bulger’s family wasn’t consulted about the film and now are petitioning it for removal from the nominees. Lambe claims doing so would defeat the purpose of making it. I don’t believe in censoring it, but I do wish the purpose of why it exists was clearer outside of Lambe just seeming to want to humanize the two boys and show that they weren’t just evil incarnate. Academy voters might honor this one for that and the emotional affect.
The other short about two young boys who are up to no good comes from Canadian director Jeremy Comte and is a more complete and satisfying work. Still not perfect, still fairly disturbing, but also a visionary effort from a filmmaker to watch out for. And that’s what I want from an Oscar-nominated short, something that offers a promise of a future feature director we’ll be talking about down the road. Like past winners Andrea Arnold and Martin McDonagh.
Fauve follows its two boys as they wander about, climbing old train cars and playing jokes on each other. But when they trespass in a quarry, tragedy strikes and changes them forever. And changes the film a bit to where it’s got kind of an Antonioni feel to it (similar to Van Sant’s Gerry but not as deep). There’s a poetry to Comte’s visual storytelling — aided by the cinematography of Olivier Gossot, from whom I’ll also be expecting big things — where I could’ve kept watching further beyond the short’s 17-minute length.