Oscar Nominated Short Films 2017: Live Action Review
Before kicking right into review mode, it’s important to cover some basic ground regarding the Academy’s selection for 2016’s best live action short. Every year, film schools around the world release countless thesis films, and professional filmmakers release their latest shorts, many of which go on to have successful festival-circuit runs. A select few even receive the Student Academy Award, but rarely do thesis films make it far enough to be finalists for the actual Oscar ceremony, let alone win the prize. This year isn’t much different from those before it, featuring content from all across the globe. The films on display are always strong shorts, but on occasion, they can be frustratingly simple for what ought to be an award reserved for pure excellence.
Surely, there are a lot of politics at play when it comes to receiving an Oscar nomination, not to mention the difficult criteria that a film must fulfill to even be eligible in the first place. This is all the more apparent when considering how bafflingly weak entries make the cut every now and then. (Weak entries in recent years like THE SHORE, DO I HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT EVERYTHING, THAT WASN’T ME, and AYA come to mind.) 2017 is a decidedly weaker year than 2016. Of the two-to-three strong nominees (depending on who you ask), one must admit that the films on display this year don’t boast any moments of sheer excellence. There is a lot of fun to be had in individual bites, and some of the writing this year is quite strong, but as short cinematic endeavors, it looks like 2017 is mostly a disappointment. Below are our thoughts on each of the nominees, ordered from worst to best.
Director: Aske Bang
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: every year the Academy Awards nominate at least one weak “topical” short film. In this case, it’s SILENT NIGHTS, in which a Ghanan refugee whores himself out to a Danish woman in order to pay for his son’s malaria treatment. In short, it’s the worst iteration of ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL you’ll ever see. This may just be the most politically insipid, morally reprehensible short film I’ve watched. Naturally, the aforementioned premise isn’t what director Aske Bang’s short wants to be identified as, but frankly, it’s a little difficult to see it as anything else. Lazy filmmaking and boring performances only further emphasize this 30-minute slog, and the hackneyed, clichéd narrative beats sour an already problematic experience. Among other things, SILENT NIGHTS features a disgusting white-savior complex, a beat in which our Danish love interest declares that she also lives a difficult life, and a sequence in which some racist Arabs beat our downtrodden Ghanan. I could go on about each of SILENT NIGHTS’ failures, but I think the most apt takeaway is that this film opens on the image of a black man stealing, and closes on a white woman happy that she has given this man enough money to get out of her country and be reunited with his family.
THE RAILROAD LADY (LA FEMME ET LE TGV)
Director: Timo von Gunten
In what is certainly the most expensive short film nominated for the 2017 Academy Award, THE RAILROAD LADY tells the story of a loveless, elderly Swiss woman who forms a bond with the invisible train conductor that passes by her home on a daily basis. It’s Swiss-people-problems 101, but it’s also a rather adorable, quirky concept. Peppered with a goofy, almost magical realist sentimentality, it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief for director Timo von Gunten’s feel-good movie. But as THE RAILROAD LADY chugs along, it bites off more than it can chew. Elaborating its sub-plots to involve a troubled relationship with a workaholic son, a petty feud with a local youth, and a failing bakery business, our titular lady is far too busy for any plot beat to feel adequately fleshed out. As much as Gunten wanted to address our relationship with nostalgia, his film is caught in too much of a fantasy for me to believe in a deeper profundity. In addition, lead actress Jane Birkin is frustratingly unsympathetic. As much as the visual polish, cute payoffs, and quirky dialogue make for an entertaining journey (I’ll be the first to argue that it’s not as funny or clever as it thinks it is), THE RAILROAD LADY’s final destination is rather boring. Nothing innovative is said about age or our reconciliation with mortality. Gunten does find a way to be endearing about it, but I’d be remiss to say that it’s anything more than pandering to an elderly target audience.
ENEMIES WITHIN (ENNEMIS INTERIEURS)
Director: Selim Azzazi
In what could have easily been the most powerful, poignant short film of the year, ENEMIES WITHIN attempts to dissect the horrors of Islamophobia and the fear of extreme vetting. What starts as an innocent quest for French citizenship by an Algerian man ends in life-shattering blackmail. Director Selim Azzazi brilliantly executes two lengthy, compelling interrogation scenes, but his staging is rather elementary, playing out like a less fluid Asghar Farhadi film (mind you, that’s still a huge compliment). The camera is limited to standard coverage and Azzazi never takes advantage of the restrictive space in order to heighten the tension. Cutaways to flashbacks are an interesting idea, but take viewers out of the immediacy of the film’s urgent, devastating situation. As such, the success of ENEMIES WITHIN lies entirely in the performances. Admittedly, the two leads are great, but it feels like a missed opportunity not to take more advantage of aesthetic flourishes. What’s more, the division of the two separate interrogations breaks up the film in a rather unflattering way. As an extended play on loyalty and notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity, ENEMIES WITHIN is certainly some of the smartest short film writing I’ve seen in quite some time, but as a stage play-esque visual piece, it’s a far cry from the works of Sidney Lumet.
Director: Kristóf Deák
Easily the cutest revenge film in recent memory, director Kristóf Deák’s SING tracks the friendship between two young choir singers and their success-hungry instructor. In its 25 minutes, SING explores the psyche of two girls that stand up against the micro-corruption that dominates their innocent lives. It’s a simple, but rather brilliant execution of a familiar premise, allowing this microcosm of society to represent a greater political ideal. Roaring children’s songs and a frenetic clapping beat bridge the film’s three acts, building a brilliant sense of tension on the playful schoolyard. But where Deák’s direction shines is in the performances. The casting choices are fantastic here, starting with a fierce, determined, but never unrealistic performance from Mónika Garami as the choir teacher. The two young girls showcase a relaxed, honest energy that is rarely found in AAA features, let alone from such a young short film director. And though the camerawork or the general formal craft never innovate in any unique capacity, SING is a polished, fully-functional short film, one that blossoms with a youthful energy and an applause-worthy climax.
Director: Juanjo Giménez Peña
Punchline filmmaking is a craft entirely its own. Incorporating the witticisms of sketch comedy and the precision of the best web-videos, it only makes sense that the Academy Award-nominated TIMECODE is the shortest film in its category, clocking in at right around 15 minutes. In one of the most endearing meet-cutes you’ll ever witness, a daytime security guard discovers a mutual passion that is shared between her and the guard who works the night shift. In this quasi-digital love story, their relationship blossoms through the timecode of the surveillance cameras, relegating their in-person interactions to the brief moment where they swap off between shifts. It’s brilliant, adorable, and ends in a laugh-out-loud finale. It’s perfectly reasonable to hold the absence of a redemptive character arc against TIMECODE, especially since its leads are so blank that they could literally be anyone in the audience. But to a degree that’s just the point. And just like that, Juanjo Giménez Peña has crafted the most Spanish short film I’ve ever seen; a feverish, sweaty, sexy, but always tasteful love story.