For the last 10 years, Oscar-nominated films (animation, live action, documentary) have been released as features in independent theaters across the country. Now, before all you film snobs take issue with Oscar, please know I share your pain; I am not a fan. I see 50+ films a year, but don’t watch the Academy Awards on television. I have more appreciation (and interest) for smaller, grittier artistic endeavors – across all genres of the performing and visual arts.
That said, about nine years ago, I stumbled upon a showing of the Oscar nominated short films (live action & animation) at my local independent theater, E Street Cinema. At first, I was hesitant. Why would I want to see a bunch of short films nominated by the same people who would give “Titanic” an Oscar? Well, it was the only place I could screen a dozen or so short films from all over the world in one fell swoop – so I gave it a try – and loved it. Thus, screening the annual (February) release of the Oscar nominated short films has become a winter tradition for me.
I am not a filmmaker. My reviews come from the perspective of an enthusiastic consumer of good storytelling, artistic photoplay mad respect for creators and performers who paint the canvas.
From filmmaker Agnes Varda: “(Filmmaking) means putting people in the right frame of mind. Then you can tell them, ‘Come with me on a journey…”
MY REVIEWS FOR LIVE ACTION SHORTS:
A young Afghani refugee is caught in the red tape of Swiss immigration. In a desperate, dangerously naive move to send money back home for a sick relative, Parvaneh strikes an unlikely relationship with a street-wise Swiss girl her own age. This is where you THINK you know what’s about to happen, and where writer-director Talkhon Hamzavi proves you wrong at every turn. This film is gentle but very intense. On all levels, it’s a work of art. The only criticism I have for this film is that it ends. (MY WINNER)
Butter Lamp (China)
A photographer hustles his backdrop picture street business to passersby and tourists in Tibet. The film camera never moves position, so the viewer is on lockdown, too – forced to feel all the frustrations and triumphs a photographer goes through before the shutter clicks. Writer/director Wei Hu adds interesting scene cuts to create very artful piece. He also illustrates the stark contrast between generations: from elderly Tibetans in animal skin parkas twirling prayer sticks, to young kids in western garb such as US sports jerseys and designer sneakers. So…why is it called Butter Lamp? You’ll have to watch and see.
Live Action Short Factoid:
The name Academy Award for Live Action Short Film was introduced in 1974.
1970 – 1973 Short Subjects, Live Action Films.
1957 – 1970 Short Subjects, Live Action Subjects
From 1936 until 1956 there were two separate awards:
Best Short Subject, One-reel and Best Short Subject, Two-reel
A third category Best Short Subject, color was used only for 1936 and 1937.
The Phone Call (UK)
A quick-thinking hotline counselor takes a life-changing phone call from a desperate mystery-man. Writer/director Mat Kirby illustrates a powerful race-against-time plot using camera tilts and pans across tense faces and ticking clocks. When the gut-wrenching conversation culminates, they caller’s fate is revealed, with an unexpected twist. This is a masterfully tense, intimate peek inside the world of the first responders whose work is seldom noticed.
A strange airport mishap prompts Aya to fake the role of an airport driver and lead an unsuspecting traveler on a psychotic joyride. To make matters more interesting, the traveler, Danish musician “Mr. Overby” realizes she’s a fraud as she’s flying dangerously down a super-highway in Israel. Aya claims she’s heading toward his destination, Jerusalem, but who really knows? To say things are tense in the car is an understatement. Until…things between them take a turn and Aya is faced with a critical decision. This script is perfect: it’s deliberate and measured, each character revealing only what needed to be revealed at just the right time.
Boogaloo and Graham (Scotland)
Two young brothers from a delightfully dysfunctional Scottish family face a difficult decision when they learn they’ve got another sibling on the way. The script (Ronan Blaney) is hilarious and the actors (even the children) deliver the funny! So much funny, in fact, it felt at times as though I was watching a brilliantly raunchy BBC sitcom (hey there’s an idea!). The story is set in 1978, and director Michael Lennox crafted a perfect 70’s period piece, with comic and dramatic perfection in every layer.
MY REVIEWS FOR ANIMATION SHORTS:
Me & My Moulton (Norway)
When a young girl and her sisters ask their parents for a bicycle, a theme we can all relate to unfolds: dealing with the frustrating idiosyncrasies of our families. Director Torill Kove illustrates a vibrant and whimsical (check out the trees!) design, and her storytelling gets so awkwardly personal, it might be hard to forget you’re not watching a feature film. You also might be surprised to learn that Kove says she’s never had a drawing class! Bonus: Flink the dog!
This is the story of love, heartache, and food – told from the point of view of a Winston the dog. Winston reaps the benefits of his human’s love of pizza, burgers, and fries. They are just two guys, living together in junk food food hog heaven. But when Winston’s owner starts dating a health nut, all bets are off, and poor Winston’s treats and scraps amount to nothing more than lettuce leaves, sprouts, and parsley sprigs. There are more surprises in store for Winston – and his human – as this roller coaster of love – and food – unfolds. Charming and lively, this Disney production channels the animation style of Disney movies from decades ago (Lady and the Tramp, and 101 Dalmations come to mind).
Cute factor: very high.
Animated Shorts Factoid:
The name Academy Award for Animated Short Film was introduced in 1974.
1970 – 1973 Short Subjects, Animated Films
1932 – 1970 Short Subjects, Cartoons
The Bigger Picture (UK)
WOW. 2D oil-painted animation on real screen sets! Director Daisy Jacobs’ technique is so fascinating it’s almost distracting – maybe a bit comforting – amid an otherwise dark plot: siblings facing the daunting task of providing care for their elderly mother. Lovely and timely, with ample (and gross!) comic relief, The Bigger Picture was a Kickstarter project that’s garnered lots of Festival prizes, and now, an Oscar nom. Deserved! (MY WINNER)
A Single Life – Netherlands
Terminally single Pia, who resembles Louise Belcher from Bob’s Burgers with a Pixar makeover, unlocks a time-travel secret while listening to a vinyl record on her phonograph player.
That is all.
The shortest of all the shorts, it’s just long enough. And that’s really what makes A Single Life a great entry: directors Blaauw, Oprins, and Roggeveen knew when to stop a good thing. Bonus: book on Pia’s bookshelf: “Time is On My Side” by…Marty McFly – Bravo!
The Dam Keeper (Germany)
All the characters in The Dam Keeper are animals. Pig is very young; he’s still in school. When his father dies, Pig inherits his dad’s night job – one that is vital to the safety entire town. Pig’s dismal and otherwise invisible existence at school changes when a new kid comes to town. In fact, everything changes – even the safety of the entire town. This feature is sweet and exquisite, but painfully dark as themes of bullying and betrayal spar with friendship and art.
Sweet Cocoon (France)
Nature is beautiful and nature is cruel. That’s what one overweight caterpillar finds out when he can’t fit into his cocoon – that is, without a little help from some bungling helpers. Caterpillar’s journey to achieve metamorphosis is keenly reflective of life with lessons of friendship and failure. Toss in some raucous humor, and this stunning 3D piece is a delight. Sweet Cocoon is a graduation project created by five students at ESMA, an art school in Montpellier, France. What a feeling it must be to graduate from art school with an Oscar nom!
Footprints is full of subtext and symbolism. I think it may be a statement about gun control. Or crime? Or the environment.? Or all of the above? What’s certain is that a man inside his home hears someone breaking in. He grabs his firearm and gives chase, following the would-be burglar’s footprints. That’s when things get fantastical and surreal. At one point in the pursuit, I wondered if the title “Footprints” was a metaphor for carbon footprint (you’ll see). Director Bill Plympton teams up with composer Corey Allen Jackson, whose score adds perfect tempo to the drama of the chase. Plympton has been creating animated shorts for more than 20 years, and Footprints was created entirely in ballpoint pen!
Duet is an elegantly choreographed love story. I can only describe the direction style as the animated world’s steadicam – no cuts, just flow – one fluid shot. And what a great effect; I was scared to blink for fear I’d miss something. The music, an ethereal and building score, changes each time you expect to see a visual cut.
That audio element adds a very cool layer of production that is somehow seen before heard. Duet is directed and animated entirely by Glen Keane, who’s been animating since the 70’s. And if the name Keane sounds familiar to those who grew up reading the Sunday comics (my family called them the “funny papers”) his dad, Bill Keane, brought us the classic comic strip “The Family Circus.”
Bus Story (England)
A woman has an odd dream: she wants to be a school bus driver. Why? To travel the countryside, savor the landscape, connect with school kids and meet their parents. OK, not everyone’s goal but it sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Trials and tribulations ensue – especially when the beautiful back roads of autumn become treacherous under snow and ice. On the surface, Bus Story renders feeling of loneliness and failure. Deep down it’s a story of hope and perseverance; you can’t help but root for the driver’s unwavering spirit – at every turn.