Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ranking the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

The Oscars may have been last Sunday (my "prediction count" was an acceptable 15/24), and I may have run out of precious time to write and post every review for all 57 films nominated (as of the telecast, I'd managed to get out reviews for 35 of them), but I won't stop just because the ceremony has come and gone. This is, after all, the first year that I watched every single film on the Oscar checklist, so even though we know who the winners turned out to be, I can't help but share my thoughts on all the great cinema in 2015—and a few films that left me scratching my head (I may be one of nine people who watched The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared). But I digress.

The last bunch of Oscar-nominated Shorts I managed to pop in to see the weekend of the awards show, knocking them out in the 11th hour, were the Live Action films. While the award eventually went to crowd-pleaser Stutterer, there were four others very worthy of attention. A group of projects that, after critiquing the Animated and Documentary shorts, turned out to be the best collection of nominees in the bunch.

So now, a week too late, here are my thoughts and rankings of the 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action:


Directed By: Patrick Vollrath
Country: Germany/Austria
Run Time: 30 min
View the Trailer

As we're introduced to young, eight-year-old Lea (Julia Pointner), she's picked up from her mother's house one morning by her father, Michael (Simon Schwarz), for their weekend together. Divorced, Michael and his ex-wife don't speak, but the hand-off is made and Lea joins her father happily. As the fun commences and Michael takes his beloved daughter on a series of small errands disguised as adventures, Lea begins to feel as is something is different on this particular weekend. Something that could have the potential to change their lives forever.

It's unsettling because it feels so real. There is nothing shiny or epic about this story, and I found it disturbing and beautiful. In many ways, this is easily the most involving film of the nominees, because there is no apparent threat to any of these characters... that is until you realize what's really going on. Slow and patient, the predictability (or rather, the realization, whenever it is that it hits you--for me, is was about 4 minutes in), doesn't take away from the intensity for one second. Because even if you understand that no danger may come to young Lea, it's impossible not to fear for her. I found her performance magnificent, especially for someone so young. It's rare that the camera even leaves her face, and her curiosity and worry build over time. A purely immersive film, and my personal favorite.


Directed By: Jamie Donoughue
Country: Kosovo/UK
Run Time: 21 min
View the Trailer

The most difficult film to watch of this collection and by far the most singularly cinematic achievement, as well. In twenty minutes, director Jamie Donoughue managed to create a complex war-torn society, one being navigated by two young boys just beginning to understand the severity of the danger they're encountering. Set during the Kosovo War in 1998, and framed through the stark memory of a bicycle, we're introduced to friends Oki (Andi Bajgora) and Petrit (Lum Veseli). As the Serbian takeover threatens the lives of the Albanian citizens, Petrit naively finds a way to make some money from the leader of a group of local Serbian soldiers. When his involvement puts a wedge between he and Oki, the two must fight to do what's right in the face of terrifying injustice.

The final moments were some of the most upsetting and beautifully shot climaxes of the year--of any film. It being inherently difficult to watch is what's keeping it from being higher on this list, but I have no doubt in my mind that it should have taken home the 2016 Oscar. Not to mention, this is another example of the incredible young talent we've seen steal the show throughout this entire awards season.


Directed By: Benjamin Cleary
Country: UK/Ireland
Run Time: 12 min
View the Trailer

This is the only movie presented in this category that I'd happily watch again. And I say "happily" because it stands alone in its uncompromising happy ending and optimistic outcome for everyone involved. A rarity in cinema this year, regardless of length (Brooklyn may be the only other celebrated example). Is it any wonder that Academy voters took to its hopeful protagonist, a justifiably quiet typographer named Greenwood (Matthew Needham) who suffers from an uncontrollable, debilitating speech impediment? His stutter surely doesn't represent the eloquent words swirling around his head, but his inability to convey them has left him isolated.

When he discovers that his online relationship with the engaging Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) is approaching the next phase after she asks that they meet face to face, Greenwood goes through a transformative period as he comes to terms with his deepest fear: communication. I adored this story, and not just because of the British Sign Language we get to watch Greenwood practice (signed languages are a huge passion of mine, and I wish I saw them represented in cinema more). A touching and sweet escalation of one man's determination to overcome such a personal challenge, this one stands out for exactly that reason.


Directed By: Henry Hughes
Country: USA
Run Time: 25 min
View the Trailer

There really isn't a bad film among these, and Day One is no exception. The only contribution from the United States to receive a nomination, this film about an Afghani-American named Feda (Layla Alizada) enlisting as an interpreter and being deployed to Afghanistan is a small story in a much larger ecosystem of war. Like Shok, this is a snapshot framed around the personal inexperience of our protagonist. And while it didn't quite have the structural genius as the previous shorts, the acting and direction make it undeniably compelling.

On her first day on the job, an unsure Feda accompanies a group of US soldiers to investigate intelligence that a bomb-maker is residing in a small village. When they arrive to arrest the bomb-maker, Feda discovers that his wife is not only pregnant, but is about to give birth. Navigating cultural limitations, fear, and wavering trust, the team instructs Feda, the only female on the team, to aide in the complicated and dangerous delivery of the baby. In some ways, this story is very simple. We don't really get to know these characters, but the world is rich with complications that force these very different people to interact and work together for a common goal. It's beautiful watching it all come together, and despite some strange shot choices (fake baby arms), Alizada is a captivating lead in a high stakes story.


Directed By: Basil Khalil
Country: Palestine/France/Germany
Run Time: 15 min
View the Trailer

When a boisterous family of Israeli settlers crash their car into the Virgin Mary statue outside of a remote West Bank convent, the group of nuns living inside are asked to help, despite having taken a vow of silence. Realizing that they're at an impasse after the family realizes their Sabbath rules restrict the operation of a telephone, the group must find a way to communicate and work together to restore peace to all of their lives.

Self-described as a comedy, this film may not be considered the most memorable or interesting, but it's playful nature and cross-cultural confusions are enjoyable nonetheless. An issue I might cite is that it feels far less important than it might think it is, and that may have to do with the writing, which is creative in its situational comedy but slightly obnoxious in its dialogue. But at only 15 minutes, it's a short and simple movie with a fun cast of characters. There is just no way it could hold a candle to the films above, especially thematically.

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