Boogaloo and Graham
Short films often get short shrift amid all the hoopla surrounding "Best Picture" and "Best Actor" at the Academy's annual awards show. But the wide variety of films nominated in the shorts categories proves that Oscar still gives a damn about the little things. This year's nominees in the animated, live-action and documentary categories range in tone from breezy to devastating. Check them out in advance of the Feb. 22 ceremony.
This year's Academy Award nominees reflect a diverse array of animation techniques from all around the world.
Feast is likely the most widely seen of the candidates, having preceded most showings of Big Hero 6 last fall. Director Patrick Osborne's wordless work, which tells the story of a spoiled puppy who comes to resent his owner's newfound interest in a woman with much more reasonable eating habits, doesn't skimp on charm or style, even if it feels like Disney is still chasing after the decades-spanning emotional weight of Up's opening sequence.
Even more strikingly realized is The Dam Keeper, from Pixar veterans Robert Kondo and Daisuke "Dice" Tsutsumi. Similarly dialogue-free, aside from bookends of narration, this 18-minute-long tale of a young pig keeping the literal and figurative darkness at bay in his small village, where he is treated as a pariah by other animals, uses a painterly approach to bring this fable to rich life.
Simplicity is the name of the game for two of the other shorts, Canada's Me and My Moulton, about a young Norwegian girl and her sisters eagerly awaiting their first bicycle, and A Single Life, from the Netherlands, in which a lonely woman begins skipping through her own timeline with the help of a cautionary vinyl record. Each is pleasant enough, although their narrative slightness is matched by relatively basic styles of animation.
The Bigger Picture is Daisy Jacobs' bittersweet portrait of two English brothers caring for their elderly mother. Over the course of just seven minutes, it reckons with the burden of dying parents and sibling rivalry with striking expressionism, as Jacobs incorporates two-dimensional, life-size renderings of her characters within tangibly three-dimensional environments and allows their emotions to spill out into the world whenever appropriate.
-- William Goss
Despite language barriers, this year's nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film are unified by a general desire to tug at one's heartstrings.
The most immediately arresting is Mat Kirkby's The Phone Call, centered on Heather (Sally Hawkins), a crisis center hotline worker trying to keep a suicidal Stan (Jim Broadbent, heard but never seen) on the line while she seeks clues about his identity. For much of its 21 minutes, the drama plays on Hawkins' increasingly desperate face, which makes the film's upbeat coda feel jarringly disingenuous.
A slice of Northern Irish history provides the setting for Boogaloo and Graham, a more nakedly sentimental coming-of-age yarn concerning two Belfast boys and the chickens they raise as pets amid the Troubles of 1978. Director Michael Lennox does his best Rob Reiner impression here, laying in a wistful voiceover amid playful hijinks and the occasional pocket of darkness before capping things off with a feel-good doo-wop tune.
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak) is a more pointedly political contribution, spending the better part of its running time dryly observing rural Tibetans being photographed against a variety of exotic backdrops before delivering a somber punchline. Israel's Aya similarly overstays its welcome, taking a slight meet-cute premise full of potential (a married woman impulsively adopts the role of airport chauffeur for a Jerusalem-bound stranger) and stretching it out to an almost interminable 40 minutes.
Running at a more bearable 25 minutes, Parvaneh does justice to its character study of an Afghan immigrant (Nissa Kashani), who is trying to send money back home to her family from Zurich, where she works illegally.
-- William Goss
The five Oscar-nominated short documentaries examine suffering from different angles.
Joanna is a slice-of-life portrait of a woman facing death. Director Aneta Kopacz's intimate but unobtrusive camera catches the day-to-day interplay between Joanna -- a Polish blogger, wife and mother who has terminal cancer -- and her inquisitive young son John. Kopacz doesn't foreground Joanna's diagnosis, focusing instead on leisurely scenes of Joanna asking her son about his crush, of John chopping vegetables, and blushing when he sees his mother's bra. The result is a candid and deeply moving document of this particular mother/son bond.
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is also about human bonds forged, this time between strangers over the phone at the Veterans Crisis Line, which fields some 22,000 calls a month from veterans contemplating self-harm. A riveting HBO documentary directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent, the film opens with a sobering statistic -- 22 veterans a day commit suicide -- then zeroes in on the team of people trying, one call at a time, to beat back that statistic. We never hear or see the callers, only the responders, but a vivid picture emerges of both sides of the line, their agony and their empathy.
Our Curse is the intensely personal account by husband and wife Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki of their experience with newborn son Leo, diagnosed with a rare, often-fatal respiratory disorder called Ondine's Curse. (Essentially, the body when sleeping stops breathing on its own.) The night before they bring home Leo for the first time (he spent his first months in the ICU), they set up a stationary camera to record themselves -- exhausted, unguarded, clutching wine glasses on the couch -- as they consider the future with a son who is in many ways still a stranger. The future is bleak. The present is overwhelming. Once Leo is brought home, there is an extended scene -- shot in a close-up of Leo with his parents' hands flitting in and out of the frame -- that documents the arduous process of removing, cleaning and reinserting his tracheostomy tube. The new parents are still getting the hang of it. You can hear the stress rise in their voices. Leo wails, but the sound is stolen by the tube in his throat. It's shattering to watch. But it's worth it. Promise. It is a strange and intoxicating thing to watch love bloom, and that's exactly what happens between parents and child. And that, it turns out, is just as shattering to watch.
The other two films don't hold up to comparison. J. Christian Jensen's White Earth is a well-intended but unfocused look at the toll an oil boom takes on a tiny North Dakota town. And Gabriel Serra Arguello's The Reaper (La Parka) -- at face value a portrait of a Mexican slaughterhouse worker meditating on his job and mortality -- is a graphic depiction of slaughterhouse conditions guaranteed to turn carnivores into leaf-eating penitents.
-- Kimberley Jones