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. We like to do both sets as a one-day double-feature date, which gives us time between showings to look around the fashion mall connected to the theater and gawk at clothing and cookware with triple-digit prices we could never conscionably pay.
First up: my rankings of this year’s five Animated Short Film nominees, from not-bad to peachiest. They’re probably available on iTunes or other streaming services, but I honestly haven’t checked. Links are provided to official sites where available if you’re interested in more info. Enjoy where possible!
Pear Cider and Cigarettes: Gorillaz video animator Robert Valley adapts his own graphic-novel bio based on the true story of a close personal friend who lived life as a hedonistic death spiral despite the too-late efforts of friends and an overseas liver transplant that was an adventure in itself. Partially funded in the home stretch through a Kickstarter campaign and co-produced by Metallica bassist Rob Trujillo, Valley’s frequently Sienkiewicz-esque stylings captures the seedy, jagged edges of the nonstop party life, the throes of denial and withdrawal, and the agony of watching slow-motion self-sabotage their way off this mortal coil. To an extent the only R-rated animated short in the program is almost too personal for outsiders to watch or appreciate if only because it seems like a tragedy that boils down to “This dude made several hundred terrible choices in a row and died because of them” oughtn’t be this relentlessly flashy.
Piper: Finding Dory‘s opening act of course landed the mandatory Disney/Pixar slot, the cute story of a kiddo sandpiper learning how to fetch lunch in the face of big scary dampening ocean waves. Beautiful water animation supports a slight but decent primer for little kids on how to be brave.
Blind Vaysha:: A fable about a girl with a magical birth defect: one eye can only see the past; the other, the future. Whatever she gazes upon, she can only see what it was and what it will become, but not the thing as it actually is. When her only intakes are history and prophecies, dealing with her present becomes impossible. Aiming to speak to nostalgia addicts and Chicken Littles at once, Bulgarian animator Theodore Ushev renders his admonitions like ancient woodblock carvings that remind me of comics artists like Peter Kuper and Danijel Zezelj, stark colors shifting rapidly among abyssal blacks deeper in portent than your average CG-rendered feature.
Borrowed Time: A grizzled sheriff has a flashback to a Wild West action sequence in his younger days when dumb luck saved his life but cost someone else theirs. Loss and regret haunt Our Hero as he scrapes for any reason to leave the haunting memories behind. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, animators respectively from Pixar and Blue Sky, turn in a short, sharp shock of a look at a father/son legacy gone terribly wrong.
Pearl: Patrick Osborne, the Oscar-winning director of the lovable 2014 Disney short “Feast” returns with a gimmicky, heartwarming life history viewed across decades from the viewpoint inside the family car. Holiday outings, road trips, parental street searches, arguments, teenage driving, and friendly joyriding pass by quickly, much like real life, as a father and daughter age, grow, love, rift, and reunite while that same old jalopy keeps on ticking and racking up huge maintenance bills. Many families call a house home, but for some the car is where we’re really living out most of our lives. It’s like a Boyhood sequel about a girl that’s five minutes long instead of three hours.
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As with previous years’ shorts, the theatrically released collection includes additional “commendable” shorts to pad out the running time and help justify the ticket price. This year’s three Commendable bonus shorts bumped the total program up to a mere 86 minutes:
Asteria: Quickie about competing space explorers — two of them human — trying to plant their flags on the same planet with wacky results. The moral: just because you think you got there first doesn’t mean you are first.
Once Upon a Line: A 2-D black-white-and-red side-scrolling non-game transforms quotidian boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl fare into a minimalist continuum that will never stop or vary unless you let in color and shake up the linework. A simple, resonant rendition of life coming at you fast.
The Head Vanishes: An elderly woman takes a birthday train ride to the seaside, carrying her head under her arm and finding herself followed by a mysterious young woman who keeps calling her “Mom”. That’s her take on reality, anyway. A bittersweet road trip through a skewed perspective that may be disturbing to anyone whose greatest fear is losing their mind in old age.
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Next up: my rankings of this year’s five Live-action Short Film nominees, from “NOPE” to “Awwwww!”:
Silent Nights: A Ghanese traveler lies, steals, and suckers himself a younger girlfriend in Denmark while his wife and three kids suffer in poverty back home. You’d expect an immigrant like that to be the villain in a Trump Signal Corps propaganda film (not to mention the Arab hoodlums who mug him in one scene), but here we’re encouraged to sympathize with him as well as the lady he’s fleeced out of much cash so he can have a happy ending despite offenses that should get him punched in the face dozens of times once he moves miles beyond the point of Doing Whatever It Takes to Survive. The joy in not being an objective film critic is I’m free to file this in the same mental canister as Out of Africa, The English Patient, and other exemplars of protagonist adultery for which I will never, ever exhibit a whit of patience.
Timecode: A Spanish security guard monitors her assigned parking garage with bored diligence until a seemingly mundane parking light incident leads her to uncover an odd secret about her graveyard-shift coworker. Fortunately it’s a silly, happy kind of secret, not the horror-movie kind. Harmless fluff in which nothing brings out joy quite like the surprise of discovering you and a seeming stranger share something uncommon in common.
Sing (Mendinki): A Hungarian kids’ choir prepares for their next big competition, for which their kindly teacher needs to make one small adjustment to assure victory: she orders the new girl in class not to sing. Reminding me of a time when Puttin’ on the Hits taught me how to lip-synch my way through music class, poor Zsofi is far more devastated than I ever was, especially when her isolated heartbreak leads to the uncovering of a mini-conspiracy undermining the integrity of their proud choir, forcing the kids either to fall in line or take a stand. The predictable ending didn’t deter from the enjoyment of watching kids band together against the forces of adult selfishness and ego without turning it into a daffy ’80s Disney live-action flick.
Ennemis Interieurs (Enemies Within): A benign interview with an Algerian schoolteacher seeking French citizenship mid-1990s takes a frightening turn when an innocuous line of questioning about his on-the-record past leads to the worst possible revelation of all for a would-be immigrant: that he once went to “meetings”. Framed simply as a pair of gripping interviews, the short invites pondering about whether immigrants are allowed to have private lives, whether government officials are capable of toeing the thin line between security and paranoia, and what it means to love a country so much that you want to belong there by any legal means necessary. Director Selim Azzazi strikes a balance in the immigration debate longer than expected until he lets the playing field tilt in the obvious direction, and stymies with an ambiguous ending that begs the question of whether or not the escalation was worth pursuing against a man who’s technically lived in France since before his interrogator was born.
La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV): ’60s British actress/singer Jane Birkin (Blow-Up, Death on the Nile) is a widow and bakery owner who lives next to a railroad and cheerily waves the flag of Switzerland at the passing TGV train twice every day like clockwork. One day after years of this ritual, the engineer tosses her a note of recognition out the window as he zooms by, and soon they strike up a most unusual pen-pal relationship that reinvigorates her humdrum demeanor, renews her interest in baking goods for others, fills her fridge with the gift of cheeses, and kind of annoys her walking business-suit of a son whose idea of a favor is offering to put her in a nursing home. Though the ending isn’t as straightforwardly happy as she’d hope, Birkin marvels as a golden-age idealist with plenty of spark left in her when the right muse comes along.
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The Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary Short Film are never aired theatrically here in Indianapolis, but two of the five are now available on Netflix if you’d like an easy way to add more Oscar viewing to your to-do list:
Extremis: A tear-jerking look at hospital patients who stay on this side of terminal as long as they remained hooked to machines, but who sooner or later are faced with the hard choice of whether to accept the machines as a permanent fixture or to unplug and deal with the grave consequences. In most cases the patients lack the lucidity and have to defer the option to relatives who can’t tell which choice would be the least worst. For at least one patient without any relatives claiming him, plug-or-unplug ends up the hospital’s call to make by default. It’s generally tough eavesdropping on those struggling over the ethics and morals of it all, though some patients have more footage included here than others, leaving one or two subjects with what feels like unfairly superficial coverage.
The White Helmets: If someone says “Syria” and the first word popping in your head is “politicizing BOOOOOOO”: one, that’s two words; two, you’re a bit cruel; and three, believe it or not, not all Syrians are evil refugees coming to slaughter your family and lower your property values. There are innocent humans who still call Syria home. For those stubborn residents clinging to their homeland, one task force stands ready to save them after the daily bombing raids: the Syria Civil Defense, a.k.a. the titular White Helmets. Neither armed soldiers nor professional emergency workers, the White Helmets are volunteers who sift through rubble for survivors, digging under fallen walls and collapsed ceilings, for the simple motivation that saving lives is the right thing to do. A few stray explosions are caught on video amid so much harrowing wreckage, while in between their compelling interviews is ride-along footage of a team sent to Turkey as one part mandatory training exercise, one part decompression getaway from the chaos. Equipment lessons and team-building camaraderie give way to fear and guilt at being away from home while the carnage continues without them around to save the day.
Worth emphasizing: the subjects of immigration and refugees are left off the table because this is entirely about those who stay in Syria to this day in hopes that things will get better and they won’t have to ask for your help. It’s arguably the most important and effective short of any in this entire entry.