The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Short Films
Opening in theaters January 29; see Shorts.tv for streaming options
The majority of Oscars small talk suggests that the award show has only a few categories, for acting and of course, Best Picture. The short film categories for live action, animation, and documentary are too often neglected, typically because people haven’t seen the nominated titles. Thankfully, this collection of nominees is easier to see than it once was. The nominees are a diverse bunch, both geographically (it is refreshing to see films from other countries nominated in categories other than “Foreign”) and in terms of story. Some of the shorts are whimsical, others are harrowing. Each short tackles a heroic task: tell a compelling story and create a world in less than an hour (the longest film here is forty minutes, while the shortest is six)—by and large, the offerings, while sometimes too precious or forced, ultimately represent a pool of cinematic talent that is rewarding to wade in.
The live action shorts, Ave Maria, Day One, Shok, Stutterer, and Everything Will Be Okay, take place in Israel, Afghanistan, Kosovo, England, and Germany, respectively. All of these films are preoccupied with borders. Ave Maria presents an unlikely collision of nuns and an Israeli family. The film makes use of dreamy soft white lighting which offsets the tension of this forced connection, brought about by a broken-down car, a nuisance that knows no cultural bounds. In Day One, the stakes are high: a recently divorced Afghan-American interpreter on her first mission finds herself unexpectedly having to help deliver the baby of a bomb-maker’s wife. The 25-minute runtime makes this one feel like a particularly action-packed prestige TV episode. Henry Hughes, a first time director who previously served as a paratrooper in Afghanistan, brings tension likely experienced firsthand in his time in service, yet the twinning of birth and death here feels a touch too expected. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see a warzone film that prioritizes women, and Layla Alizada’s performance combines calmness and intensity. Shok explores how a friendship between two boys is threatened in wartime Kosovo. The film relies too heavily on a grey, dreary palette as a means of conveying the tense situation, but the tragic end does add emotional weight. Stutterer, on the other hand, is the lightest short of the bunch, a tale of a young man who stutters severely and agonizes over meeting a female internet friend in person. An eloquent interior monologue cleverly contrasts with the protagonist’s speech impediment, yet the whole thing operates in a cutesy-indie vein. The shots of typed Facebook chat screens feel particularly uninspired, though seeing where the relationship between the two characters might go could provide feature rom-com fodder. Everything Will Be Okay deals with the complex borders of family life. A young daughter of divorced parents goes out to spend the day with her father, and an ominous mood begins to set in as we realize the father is trying to flee with her. Thankfully, the father is not portrayed as a cliché bad guy, and director Patrick Vollrath emphasizes small, telling moments of intimacy and tension between father and daughter, as in a scene at a toy store, or when the daughter, weighed down by a heavy backpack at the airport, looks perilously out of place. In bite-sized pieces, these five live action shorts render worlds of conflict, and occasionally small moments of understanding, hard won in high-stakes situations.
The nominees for best animated short are a mixed bag of child-friendly and more adult titles. Sanjay’s Super Team, the directorial debut of longtime Pixar animator Sanjay Patel, is the glossiest title here, but not the most interesting. While the film deserves credit for being the first time Pixar has depicted an Indian family, the mixing of superheroes and religious iconography, rendered in smooth computer animation, isn’t quite as memorable as one might hope. Pixar is known far and wide for crowd-pleasers, and it is worth exploring the underdogs in this category. Prologue is an elegantly rendered tale of innocence lost. The animation gives life to colored pencil drawings, as realistic, anatomically correct men begin to fight and bleed, with a young girl as their witness. Prologue is surprisingly violent, and its every shot has a texture and sweeping motion missing from computer animation. Bear Story, from Chile, uses computer animation and only really feels inspired when it shows elaborate machine cogs. Computer-animated bears are at this point in the all-too-digital age, dull. We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, from Russia, is a sweet, dialogue-free tale of friendship and loss, centered around two cosmonauts. The minimal animation style is pleasing to the eye, and the characters have the appearance of the wry men who populate New Yorker cartoons. The film isn’t science fiction, but uses a background familiar from such stories to briefly tell a human story. World of Tomorrow, the cinephile fan favorite, is the most verbose and philosophical offering here. Veteran animation director Don Hertzfeldt presents two stick figures in constant motion, a young girl and a woman from the future, as the woman shares truths of loss, memory, and the fate of the world. Hertzfeldt has a knack for blending philosophical truths (“Now is the envy of all of the dead”) with random child observations and babbling. The primitive yet highly expressive and endearing animations recall web comic “Hyperbole and a Half,” with a science fiction twist.
The documentary shorts are perhaps the shorts where innovation is least expected, as they often rely on the talking head format. Three of the five nominees in this category are HBO productions: Body Team 12, Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, and A Girl in the River. The fog of war and loss, from World War II to Vietnam, hangs over all the nominees, including the non-HBO productions, Chau Beyond the Lines and Last Day of Freedom. Body Team 12 and A Girl in the River both tell women’s stories wrought with horror: the woman profiled in Body Team 12 collects bodies from those who died of Ebola in Liberia, and A Girl in the River focuses on a young woman who escaped a religiously motivated honor killing in Pakistan. Chau Beyond the Lines is the closest to an inspirational story here: it tells the story of Chau, a young Vietnamese man disabled from the aftereffects of Agent Orange, used long before he was born, in the Vietnam War. Chau eloquently describes the considerable difficulties he has faced, and his recent, hard-won success in his goal of becoming an artist. Last Day of Freedom is the most creative documentary here, as it is animated in a painterly, impressionistic style. In this film, Bill Babbitt shares the devastating story of turning in his brother, Manny, to the police after he committed a crime triggered by his PTSD from serving in Vietnam. Due to a shocking collision of injustices, Manny ends up getting the death penalty, and one senses that the animation here provides a sort of remove when Bill’s recollections get too deeply emotional to bear. All of these documentaries are provocative, and shed light on stories of which we may otherwise be unaware.
While the shorts are far less likely to be seen than the feature nominees, and all together have made less money than a single feature, they are still very much worth exploring. These films are less talked about, and choosing a winner in each category, one would hope, is for the voters more a matter of personal preference than when voting on the expected monoliths in the main categories. And after all, all the nominees in one short film category often end up being shorter than one overlong, self-important feature film.