Each year since 2009 my wife and I have paid a visit to Keystone Art Cinema, the only dedicated art-film theater in Indianapolis, to view the big-screen release of the Academy Award nominees for Best Live-Action Short Film and Best Animated Short Film. Results vary each time and aren’t always for all audiences, but we appreciate this opportunity to sample such works and see what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deemed worthy of celebrating, whether we agree with their collective opinions or not. Usually we do both sets as a one-day double-feature date, but a non-negotiable scheduling conflict cut into our window of opportunity. We saw the live-action set this week, with hopes to catch the animated shorts next weekend.
This was the first time in years that neither Anne nor I hated any of the five live-action contenders. Oddly, this was also the first year in some time that not a single nominee featured any Hollywood actors we recognized. (I uncovered a few low-level ones after the fact, but they were strangers to us.) We don’t require familiar faces to enjoy a given work, but it’s nifty to have a lineup 100% guaranteed not to have slid in on marquee recognition alone. Presented below are my rankings of this year’s five Live-Action Short Film nominees, from the most Outstanding to the most Needs Improvement, as my old report cards used to label. They’re probably available on iTunes or other streaming services, but I honestly haven’t checked. Links are provided to the official sites if you’re interested in more info. Enjoy where possible!
Alles Wird Gut (“Everything Will Be Okay”): A German dad picks up his tiny daughter for overnight visitation and takes her out for toy shopping, amusement park fun, and a series of odd errands that slowly, subtly begin to worry her as she picks up on clues to Daddy’s master plan. Low-key suspense is a tough trick to pull off when your heroine is a moppet, but the results are a true testament to the fact that kids aren’t always easy to bamboozle. I was a non-custodial parent for seven years and I recognize the tumultuous thought processes in a guy who thinks he knows better than the courts what’s best for his loved ones, but writer/director Patrick Vollrath nails the hard, uncomfortable conflict that arises when the parent lets their selfishness override the kid’s differing definition of “loved ones”.
Day One: Writer/director Henry Hughes is an American veteran who served in Afghanistan, came home, went to film school, and through a series of fortunate events found himself under the tutelage of the George Lucas. The end credits confirm Skywalker Sound brought their tools and experience to the sound design, but the story is very much borne from what Hughes witnessed firsthand. Layla Alizada (Miss Piggy’s hairdresser on ABC’s The Muppets) is a first-day interpreter thrust into a dire situation involving a wanted bomber played by Navid Negahban (terrorist Abu Nazir on Homeland), his frightened family, and a pregnancy gone horribly wrong. What threatens to become the most traumatic medical emergency in film history instead points toward a plea for humane coexistence during life’s most important moments despite the legal and traditional barriers.
Stutterer: A sweet romantic piece about a British typesetter who’s far more eloquent in Facebook Messenger than he is in person and the crisis of confidence that hits him when his online girlfriend asks to meet him in person. Between writer/director Benjamin Cleary and actor Matthew Needham, they’ve perfectly captured the incessant, often multi-layered inner monologue of a guy with a robust vocabulary, a sharp wit, and a disability that keeps it all bottled up. Bonus points for the brief, understated, vital portrayal of a dad who’s spent decades developing infinite loving patience. The ending very nearly feels like a too-cute coincidence till you think backward through all Our Hero’s actions and realize how his insecurity is more of an inhibition than the stutter itself.
Shok (“Friend”): Hard-knock tale of life in 1998 Kosovo for a conscientious Serbian boy and his entrepreneurial buddy who’s trying to get rich quick by selling rolling papers to various soldiers. That’d be a great scheme for this plucky young Ralph Kramden if everyone in the area was on the same side. The kids weather the ups and downs of best-friendship in the worst of times until the dominoes fall toward a sudden, tremendous gut-punch of an ending. One problem: I chuckled out loud at a random, deadly serious, three-second shot of an empty, swaying swing symbolizing Childhood’s End, as it has in way too many other movies. If not for that quick yet distracting cliché, I would’ve ranked this at #1 on my list.
Ave Maria: An Israeli family crashes their car on the West Bank minutes before Shabbat in front of a Catholic convent staffed by nuns who’ve taken a vow of silence. Hilarity ensues! The mostly amusing us-vs.-them negotiation is yet another nominated parable favoring general humanist unity over belief systems and personal convictions, but it stumbles when it ditches most of its comedic premise after about six minutes. Disregarding your own deeply held customs to save lives is one thing; throwing them away as a shortcut to feel-good whimsy is kind of another.