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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Look out, there's an Oscar in your...

Screen Grabs: Look out, there’s an Oscar in your shorts

This year's nominated animated, live action, and documentary shorts are a mixed bag, but there are some rewarding watches.

Expanding Oscar’s Best Picture nominee pool from five to ten was intended to broaden popular appeal at a time when there’s a greater gap than ever between hit movies and “prestige” ones. That chasm meant potential viewers were growing less and less interested in the annual awards broadcast, since the films in contention were increasingly ones they’d never heard of. (It’s hard to think of a top prize-winner fewer people saw than 2021’s Coda, for instance.) Expanding the tent could make room for the occasional acclaimed comic book or action-franchise blockbuster, as well as allowing more variety in general.

This year’s crop bears the wisdom of that notion out: The nominees run a gamut from such usual suspects as a historical saga (Killers of the Flower Moon) and two flashy biopics (MaestroOppenheimer) to a toy-based megahit (Barbie). There’s also bittersweet seriocomedy (The Holdovers), a sterling bilingual indie drama (Past Lives), witty social commentary (American Fiction), a couple of intellectually challenging foreign features (Anatomy of a FallZone of Interest), and one unpinnable phantasmagoria (Poor Things).

You’d think such diversity would already be typical in the short film categories, where theoretically there’s less studio politicking involved and artistic merit should be the dominating criterion. But recently those competitions have heated up, as evidenced by the fact that many titles now come accompanied by aggressive publicity campaigns directed at voters and critics—and if the current race is any indication, the result has not been improving. 2024 Oscar Shorts programs currently in local theaters (and/or about to open in them) encompass a range of themes, cinematic styles and points-of-origin. But somewhat bewilderingly, one thing they don’t display much of is excellence.

Probably the most disappointing selection this year is in the category often most looked forward to, Best Animated Short. There’s no lack of aesthetic or technical divergence, with entries whose distinctive looks incorporate a pencil-sketch-like austerity, painterly color lyricism, live action elements, rotoscoping, and more. But it’s a weirdly cheerless assortment, whose frequently heavy-handed messaging seldom pays off in the emotional impact desired. There are works about the Holocaust (Tai Kanator’s French-Israeli Letter to a Pig), the death penalty (Jared & Jerusha Hess’ Ninety-Five Senses), oppression of women (Yegane Moghaddam’s Iranian Our Uniform), childhood trauma (Stephanie Clement’s French Pachyderme) and the insanity of armed national conflicts (Dave Mullins’ US War Is Over!, duly soundtracked by John & Yoko).

In order to boost this brief bill to the 80-minute mark, there are two extra shorts beyond the nominated five. But only John Misker’s I’m Hip, in which a Top Cat-like figure sings the late David Frishberg’s jokey jazz tune, has even a mild sense of humor. The other addition, Karni Arieli and Saul Freed’s UK Wild Summon, is a faux nature “documentary” whose metaphor is so bluntly accusatory, it might have been devised by PETA. Of course, not all ‘toons need to be fun. But this lot is so ponderously self-important, watching them feels like fulfilling a community-service obligation.

By contrast, the hefty Short Live Action and Documentary programs run close to 2.5 hours each. You might hope for some adventurousness in the former category, which should have room for more experimental, personal and idiosyncratically independent work. But no such luck: For the most part these are very conventional narratives with a case-pleading gist, and all the production gloss of substantial corporate or government funding.

Misan Harriman’s Netflix offering The After has the admirable David Oyelowo as a Londoner who suffers sudden, tragic loss. The actor is fine, but this is just grief porn, histrionic and labored. Somewhat better but also dealing with hot-button subjects (abortion rights, rape) in nuance-free fashion is Nazrin Choudhury’s Red, White and Blue, with Brittany Snow as a struggling mother who must travel out of state for a desperately needed procedure. Sporting at least an edge of black-comedy eccentricity is Lasse Lyskjaer Noer’s Danish Knight of Fortune, in which two recent widowers share an awkward afternoon at a funeral home. It’s well-made, yet in the end just another cozily sentimental little miniature.

The two remaining Live Action nominees, however, are really worthwhile. Vincent Rene-Lortie’s half-hour Canadian Invincible treads familiar dramatic territory—its protagonist is a bright but stubbornly self-sabotaging 14-year-old (Leokim Beaumier-Lepine) whose anger issues have landed him in a juvenile lockdown facility. But recalling the likewise French-language naturalism of the Dardennes, and even Truffaut’s 400 Blows, this astute portrait eschews melodrama and moralizing for sharp, empathetic observation.

Better still is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the longest (at 37 minutes) of four short Roald Dahl adaptations Wes Anderson released to Netflix this fall. Opinions were sharply divided about that auteur’s feature this year, Asteroid City—though I liked it considerably more than his last, The French Dispatch. Regardless, you could argue that the Dahl films suggest his particular bag of tricks is best suited to a shorter format. This tale of improbable mental powers, spanning from colonial India to 1920s England, is a delightful sort of screen Faberge Egg, deliciously ornate and void of any practical application. It has immaculate performances from Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ben Kingley, and others. Would it be shocking if the Academy actually bestowed an award on something this… enjoyable? Given the competition, yes.

Probably the most solid selection overall is among the Best Documentary Shorts, even the worst of which are worthy enough in subject matter to hold attention. I could hardly be more in sympathy with the indictment offered by The ABCs of Book Burning, even if this rare directorial effort by Sheila Nevins—who’s produced many among the most important and artful documentaries of the last thirty years—is pretty much one long, preachy public service announcement.

John Hoffman and Christine Turner’s The Barber of Little Rock (about combating systemic economic segregation in the Black community), as well as Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers’ The Last Repair Shop (focusing on how music saved the lives of several diversely challenged individuals) address significant issues in relatable ways, though you may find they occasionally lay on the inspirational uplift a bit thick.

Most engaging in their distinctive viewpoints are two films about immigrants. Nai Nai & Wai Po by Sean Wang (who just made a big splash at Sundance with his first dramatic feature DiDi) is a showcase for his two grandmothers, who are aged eighty- and ninety-something respectively, and now share a house—even (platonically, one assumes) a bed. These two Chinese elders wax a bit Grey Gardens for the camera, their wacky behavior including dancing, playing with swords, farting in bed, and watching Superbad—albeit in a spotless US suburban home, not a squalorous old dump. They admit such antics happen only when he comes to visit. But their joie de vivre is infectious.

More meditative is S. Leo Chiang’s Island In Between, which ponders the precarious geopolitical position occupied by Kinmen, a group of islands located between mainland China and Taiwan. It officially belongs to the latter… but then the People’s Republic insists it has jurisdiction over all these islands, and a Hong Kong-like assertion of that claimed authority is expected/dreaded in the near future. Having deep ties to all, the director feels like he’s in a “three-way custody battle,” his life magnetized equally by China, Taiwan and the US This New York Times Op-Ed film is at once personal, poetic, and educational—a mix one wishes more of this year’s short-form Oscar contenders managed so well.

OSCAR SHORTS programs are currently playing local theaters, including the Alamo Drafthouse and Opera Plaza (both showing the Live Action and Animation bills). The Roxie is now playing the Documentary Shorts, and as of Fri/16 added the Animation ones.

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