The 2015 oscar-nominated short films
Opening January 30 at IFC Center
Removed as they are from the unforgiving realities of the marketplace for feature-length releases, one might think it at least possible that Academy would use the three short-film categories to reward the sorts of aesthetic values that typically get short shrift in more commercial fare. Such reasoning, this year’s contenders leave little doubt, operates on the rankest naiveté.
Unsurprisingly, the documentary nominees skew heavily toward the righteous and noble-minded, distinguished more by subject matter than artistic invention. Mexican entrant The Reaper (directed by Gabriel Serra Argüello) and Stanford MFA thesis White Earth (J. Christian Jensen) both zero in on some of the less-publicized depredations and dehumanizations of a globalized economy; two more films, Joanna (Aneta Kopacz) and Our Curse (Tomasz Sliwinski), both from Poland, are intimate portraits of families coping with devastating illness. (The fifth, Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, was unavailable for screening, but appears to lie at the intersection of the two categories.)
Of these the latter pair is distinctly to be preferred (if that’s the word) to the former. The Reaper purports to meditate on death via its study of a slaughterhouse worker, while White Earth asks a fourth-grade class in rural North Dakota to complete the sentence, “I think oil is….” Both share a disingenuous self-effacement on the part of the filmmakers. Lingering on artful compositions and relying on the voiceover testimony of Real People, they elide their own roles in creating and shaping these narratives. Term the mode conspicuous compassion: a pious dwelling on misfortune that shies away at the risk of an overt political stance.
While White Earth and The Reaper might as well be delivered from a pulpit, Joanna and Our Curse sermonize only by implication; their primary aim is therapeutic. Our Curse deals with its director’s own life, as he and his wife struggle to care for their infant son whose rare condition means he can’t breathe on his own while asleep, and will always be dependent on a ventilator. Almost a mirror image, Joanna documents a woman’s efforts to face her terminal prognosis squarely and make the most of the time left to her. Our Curse is the more unflinching of the two; expect voters to give the prize to Joanna in tribute to its now-deceased subject.
Of the live-action nominees, only French-Israeli co-production Aya (directed by Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun) qualifies as full-bore insufferable nonsense. Built on unmotivated quirk and withheld information, it exhibits all the worst tendencies of the Sundance set, overseas pedigree notwithstanding. As matter of principle, the transparent contrivance it passes off as a plot does not warrant even the most cursory synopsis.
The next rung up is occupied by two British nominees, The Phone Call (Mat Kirkby) and Boogaloo and Graham (Michael Lennox); they represent an improvement in that their trumped-up emotions are at least recognizable from daily life. The Phone Call benefits greatly from the star power of its principals, Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, as a crisis-hotline operator and her unseen interlocutor, but what the director intends as high drama comes out irremediably mawkish. Likewise, Boogaloo manages a fair approximation of wit in its rose-colored recollections of childhood in Belfast, but falls victim to overpowering cutesiness.
Better, if not great, is Swiss production Parvaneh (Talkhon Hamzavi), a sensitive depiction of cross-cultural female bonding between its title character, a teenaged Afghani immigrant trying to send money home, and the punk child of privilege who assists her. It has all the complexity of an after-school special, but in this field honesty and good intentions are not to be sneezed at.
The only genuine surprise in the lot is the French-Chinese co-production Butter Lamp (Hu Wei). A fixed gaze at a series of Tibetan subjects as they are photographed in front of various soundstage-sized backdrop paintings, it occupies territory bordering both on conceptual art and sketch comedy. Though the category seems otherwise up for grabs, Butter Lamp, the obvious loser, hasn’t got a prayer.
Strongest of the three sets are the animated nominees. Dutch CGI piece A Single Life (directed by the credited team of Job, Joris & Marieke) is two minutes of variation on a single gimmick, hardly earth-shattering but smart enough not to wear out its welcome—the sort of thing that Pixar likes to include with its features as an amuse-l’oeil. (Feast, not made available for screening, would appear to be in a similar vein.) Me and My Moulton (Torill Kove) is a charming bit of nostalgia for a Norwegian childhood, modest in scope but executed with style and verve.
The sure bet to win is The Dam Keeper (Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi), a fairy tale lushly rendered in thousands of individual paintings, but even better is Daisy Jacobs’s The Bigger Picture. Blending stop-motion with painting and traditional cel work, Jacobs produces a caustic memoir of caring for an infirm parent. The film is funny, cutting, inventive, unpredictable, far and away the most rewarding article to be found in the short slate—it’s a wonder it was even