Peeking at Oscar’s shorts

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 5, 2022)

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It was announced late last month that the Oscar telecast will be even more streamlined than last year’s, and in a manner that has raised a few eyebrows:

Several of the 23 categories that were presented live on the air during last year’s 93rd Oscars telecast will not be presented live on the air during the 94th Oscars telecast on March 27, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

In a move that is already causing tension within the leadership of the Academy, but is likely to be well received by the general public, the presentations and acceptance of eight awards — documentary short, film editing, makeup/hairstyling, original score, production design, animated short, live-action short and sound — will take place inside the Dolby Theatre an hour before the live telecast commences, will be recorded and will then be edited into the subsequent live broadcast, a variation of a controversial approach that the Academy first adopted and then abandoned in 2018. (The Tony Awards employs a similar model.)

The Academy declined comment.

Hmm. If the intention here is to cater to the (perceived or otherwise) short attention span of a “general public” easily lured from traditional network TV broadcasts by the siren call of social media (or perhaps the myriad digital platforms at their fingertips, chockablock with so much tantalizing, commercial-free, erm, “content”)-then why give the boot to the presentations for all three short film categories?

Be that as it may, the good news is that the 15 nominees (bundled by category) are making the rounds in select theaters; each 5-film collection runs around the length of a feature film, with separate admissions (not every theater is exhibiting all 3 collections; more info about venues and tickets can be found here). Some of the nominees are now streaming; I’ve noted platforms below where applicable.

(Reads woodenly off teleprompter) The nominees for Best Short Film-Animation are:

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Affairs of the Art (UK/Canada; 16 minutes) – Directed by Joanna Quinn and written by Les Mills, this is the latest installment in a series featuring “Beryl”, a 59-year-old factory worker who dreams of becoming “a hyper-futurist artiste”. Beryl works on her art and shares anecdotes about her off-the-wall family. This was my first exposure to the character, and I will say that she is…a free spirit. It’s not 100% comprehensible, but mordantly amusing at times. Not for all tastes. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: **½

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Bestia (Chile; 16 minutes) – This stop-motion film by Hugo Covarrubias is a portrait of a female secret police agent, set during a military dictatorship in Chile. Inspired by true events (which I would assume to be a reference to the Pinochet era). Dark and disturbing. (Now streaming on Vimeo)

Rating: ***

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Boxballet (Russia; 15 minutes) – Anton Dyakov’s film is an expressionistic Beauty and the Beast-style tale of a love affair between a ballerina and a boxer. Allusions to Russia’s transition from the Soviet era add political subtext. Imaginative and affecting.

Rating: ***½

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Robin Robin (UK; 31 minutes) – Through no fault of its own, this Pixar-style film (directed by Dan Ojari and Mikey Please) feels out of place, relative to the other 4 program selections (which all have adult themes). A young robin is adopted by a family of mice, and grows up dreaming of becoming a stealthy mouse burglar. Strictly for the kiddies, but it’s charming and tuneful, featuring voice-overs by Richard E. Grant and Gillian Anderson. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***

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The Windshield Wiper (Spain; 15 minutes) – Alberto Mielgo’s treatise on the age-old question “What is love?” is a mesmerizing piece quite reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. A man sits in a café, chain-smoking and pondering the mysteries of amour. A series of vignettes ensue; a dream within a dream, all eventually leading back to the dreamer. I’m sorry …what was the question? I’m intrigued to see more from this director. (Streaming via Short of the Week)

Rating: ****

Note: With the exception of Robin Robin, this year’s Animated Program is definitely intended for an adult audience. To be specific, there are depictions of male/female nudity, sex, animal abuse, extreme violence, and ah, bestiality. Moving on…

Nominees for Best Short Film-Documentary:

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Audible (USA; 38 minutes) – This beautifully made film recalls Steve James’ Hoop Dreams, with a depth that takes it well beyond the realm of a standard “sports documentary”. Director Matt Ogens focuses on the lives of a high school football player and his friends, who all attend the Maryland School for the Deaf. A coming-of-age story with surprising twists and turns that will have you both cheering and crying. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ****

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Lead Me Home (USA; 39 minutes) – There are 500,000 Americans without a roof over their head every night, and many more “one paycheck away” from the street. This timely and multifaceted look at homelessness is a sobering metric on the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in America. Co-directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk profile individuals from the homeless communities of Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. What becomes abundantly clear is that you cannot paint “the homeless” with one brush. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***

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The Queen of Basketball (USA; 22 minutes) – While I’m not really a sports guy, I suspect I am not the only person who has never heard of Luisa Harris. But director Ben Proudfoot is here to set us straight. When you learn about her jaw-dropping achievements, you’ll become an instant fan; especially once you meet Harris herself…soft-spoken and unassuming, but a true athletic hero in every sense of the word. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: ***½

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Three Songs for Benazir (Afghanistan; 22 minutes) – Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei’s film offers a rare glimpse at life in one of the many displacement camps in Afghanistan (this one in Kabul). The filmmakers focus on a young man named Shaista. Newly married, Shaista is determined to be the first from his tribe to serve in the Afghan National Army (his options for making a living appear to be otherwise severely limited). A surprisingly intimate portrait of hope and resilience in the face of an uncertain future. (Now streaming on Netflix)

Rating: ***½

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When We Were Bullies (Germany/USA; 36 minutes) – Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt experiences a cosmic coincidence that prompts a trip down memory lane to reexamine a bullying incident that occurred in his 5th grade year at a Brooklyn elementary school. Leans toward the navel-gazing side but holds enough fascination as a Rashomon meets Lord of the Flies rumination on memory, perception, and mob psychology.

Rating: ***

Nominees for Best Short Film-Live Action:

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Ala Kachuu-Take and Run (Switzerland; 38 minutes) – A 19-year-old Kyrgyz woman (Alina Turdumamatova) is on her way to fulfilling her ambition to study in the country’s capital city when she is kidnapped by a group of men who whisk her back to her home village for a forced marriage. When even her mother refuses to intervene on her behalf, she desperately turns to her own wits and determination to find a way out. Maria Brendle’s film is a hard look at a cultural practice in Kyrgyzstan that, despite being declared illegal in 1994, continues unabated in rural areas of that nation.

Rating: ***

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On My Mind (Denmark; 18 minutes) – Martin Strange-Hansen’s affecting “man walks into a bar” story confounds your expectations by such a degree that I shall say no more.

Rating: ****

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Please Hold (USA; 19 minutes) –There are echoes of 1984, Brazil, Robocop, and THX 1138 in KD Davila’s Kafkaesque tale of a hapless Everyman (Erick Lopez) placed under arrest by a police drone. Given no explanation, he is “escorted” to a privatized self-check-in lock-up. Convinced his predicament is due to a bureaucratic error, he frantically navigates to “talk to a human” for legal help. The American justice system as a “customer service” / AI nightmare.

Rating: ***

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The Dress (Poland; 30 minutes) – A character study of a woman in her late 20s (Anna Dzieduszycka) who lives a life of quiet desperation and reliable disappointment. Guarded and prickly around strangers, she fantasizes about having her first sexual experience. When sparks fly between her and a truck driver, her nightly brooding changes to hopeful reverie. An uncompromising examination of ingrained societal attitudes regarding female body image, beautifully acted. Directed by Tadeusz Lysiak.

Rating: ***½

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The Long Goodbye (UK; 12 minutes) – Riz Ahmed stars in this “near future” drama about a South Asian family suddenly propelled into a dystopian horror show while they are in the middle of preparing for a wedding. Visceral and intense, imbued with the noblest intentions of making a statement about the odious resurgence of nativism in the UK, but the piece is so heavy-handed that it ultimately shoots itself in the foot. Especially disappointing that this is from Aniel Karia, whose outstanding feature debut Surge made my top 10 of 2021. (Currently on YouTube)

Rating: **

 

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