Who Views Short Shorts 2015 TMT Weighs in on This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films

For all the criticisms it invites, The Academy Awards remains a touchstone cultural moment, mostly because it creates an annual mini-canon of filmmaking that many of us agree to, at the very least, consume and opine upon. During this time, we are able to have conversations and debates about movies that many of us have actually seen, resulting in more fluid exchanges of ideas and cohesion through shared experiences. But this leveling effect doesn’t really hold outside the major glitzy awards categories. Other than professional critics, who watches enough film shorts or foreign-language documentaries in a year to confidently proclaim that such-and-such got snubbed or so-and-so is only getting a nomination to make up for last year?

The Oscar-nominated short films serve as a kind of separate sandbox, apart from the noisier debates around the major awards. These cinematic morsels don’t generally get the hype machine salesmanship treatment, but they do get broad theatrical release in the month or so before the awards show itself. You get most of the conversation-facilitating mass exposure with none of the discussion-ruining preconceptions and industry gossip. So, like we did last year, we’ve decided to share our thoughts on the Animated, Live Action, and Documentary short films deemed worthy of potential statuettes and weepy speeches.


Aya (Dir. Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis)
Rating: 2/5

Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’s Aya has created its own bit of history, being the first Israeli short film to be shown as a stand-alone feature in that country. The film follows its eponymous character (Sarah Adler) as she impulsively decides to pretend to be the assigned airport driver of a visiting classical music researcher named Overby (Ulrich Thomsen, who will be familiar to fans of Thomas Vinterberg’s excellent The Celebration). We then follow their uncomfortable drive from the airport to Jerusalem, a journey that consists of some cross between sexual tension and, uh, regular tension as Aya’s deception grows in length and involvement. The heart of the short is the dichotomy of impulsivity vs. pre-planned composition, the former represented by Aya and her spontaneous decision to play pretend (“Our impulses keep us alive!” Aya opines at one point), and the latter represented by the uptight, classical-piano-minded Mr. Overby (“More often, they get us in trouble,” he counters). Binnun and Brezis are able to sustain an elegant and simple style and tone throughout the film, but the limitations of Aya’s premise and its predictable twist ending ultimately aren’t enough to justify its 40-minute length.

Boogaloo and Graham (Dir. Michael Lennox)
Rating 1.5/5

In Boogaloo and Graham, Northern Irish director Michael Lennox and screenwriter Ronan Blaney have the seed of a great story, but fail to see it through to its budding potential. The film is set in Belfast in the 1970s, placing it at the heart of the Troubles, which serve as a backdrop to the film’s conversely lighthearted story. In the film’s opening moments, a crouched man (Martin McCann) hiding from the paramilitary police stows a mysterious package in his backyard. This presumed bomb is almost immediately revealed to in fact be two baby chicks, which he hands over to his sons, Jamesy and Malachy. These two aspects of the opening — the backdrop of Northern Irish strife and a twist that toys with the viewer’s expectations — are carried throughout the film, as Jamesy and Malachy devotedly raise their chickens (named Boogaloo and Graham) to the increasing chagrin of their parents. The contrast of innocence and familial devotion with the darker historical background could be used to great effect, as a shot of the unassuming fowl, trapped behind chicken wire and awaiting their necessary execution, has the all the makings of a potent metaphor. However, the Troubles are never used as more than a backdrop, and as they fade into the background of the short, so does the piece’s truly impactful potential.

Parvaneh (Dir. Talkhon Hamzavi)
Rating: 3/5

Parvaneh is an Afghan teenager, a girl, who is in Switzerland, working, or something; I’m not sure — someone tells her she can’t work there anymore, she eats food in a cafeteria, receives a phone call from her mother, and her father is sick, she’s going to send money. She overhears some boys who tries vaguely to hit on her, telling her she can send money via Western Union in Zurich, and so she goes there. She asks people to help her send money, since her ID isn’t valid and she can’t do it alone, and encounters some lost girl sitting on the sidewalk, thick eye-makeup and torn up tights, sulking by a wall, who says she’ll do it for 50 percent, and Parvaneh, in her broken language, “No, money for family, cannot.” They settle at 10 percent, and have to go to the girl’s house, where she fights with her mother and roots through the refrigerator for food — what a contrast from Parvaneh’s life, etc., etc. — and then go to a rave, boy hits on Parvaneh and gets forceful and steals her money, she gets it back by hitting him with a bottle, so on and so forth. The world is a terrible, cold-hearted place, especially when men are involved, and the two girls form an incredible bond in 24 hours.

Every year, it seems, there are these films — short- and long-form — about how awful life is, and my toleration of them and patience for them is fleeting. I don’t see the point. I know how bad the world is, and I know that there are gleaming little specks of goodness in there, things worth not killing yourself over, and they pop up from time to time, every once in a while, few and far between, just often enough to keep the barrels out of our mouths. Parvaneh is touching and sweet and nice, and I have no idea what its point is. Men are bad, as they are in the film. So are women, like the girl, who originally wanted to cheat Parvaneh out of money in exchange for being a decent human being. We don’t help each other; we stomp on each other, per our biology. It is sad. It is true. And we repeat it ad nauseam to the same emotionally manipulative effect. I felt melancholy and touched when I watched Parvaneh. Yeah, so what?

The Phone Call (Dir. Mat Kirkby)
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s rather simple, I guess: Heather (Sally Hawkins) is answering telephones at a suicide help hotline, and she picks up the phone to find an old man, Stanley, whose crying, heaving, quiet, scared to tell her he’s taken a load of antidepressants and is preparing to fall asleep, but he wants to not be so alone, there, at the end of his life. He just wants Heather to hold his hand. “Can you do that?” he asks, “Just be there for me?” And she says, “I’m not going anywhere, Stanley,” some sort of mucus-filled hush on her voice, eyes welled up with tear droplets. It brings up a major conflict in suicide prevention, where, if someone really wants to be dead, oughtn’t they be allowed to die, however they want? Why can’t we be in charge of our own deaths? And Heather asks, over again, “Are you sure I can’t call you an ambulance, that it’s not too late?” And Stanley says back, “I’m sure that it’s too late.” He misses his wife, who died two years ago. He’s thought this whole thing through. He’s lonely. He is alone, actually; a lot of lonely people aren’t alone, but he is, he really is, and he misses the people that used to be alive, and this is not a rash decision. He’s considered his options, and this is the best one.

I like The Phone Call because it respects Stanley’s wishes, because it says, yes, probably, he ought to be allowed to die, and he ought to be allowed to tell someone that he wants to die without them just trying to stop him. We ought to be allowed to do that. To die. It seems silly to grant freedom in all things but that. There is something hopeful about it all; if we have to go, we might as well do it how we please, and so on, and maybe having to go isn’t so bad, after all, and maybe it’s pretty good. Maybe, sometimes, when we’ve considered ourselves, and our options, we can make decisions for ourselves; a psychology teacher once said to a class I was in, and I never forgot it, that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and, I guess life is temporary, but sometimes, like for Stanley, a permanent solution is the one that is necessary, and there is something in this short film that understands that, yet doesn’t advocate suicide, and something in Heather, played with insurmountable wisdom by Sally Hawkins, can be at peace, and mourn, and wonder, all at once, as one unnameable emotion.

Butter Lamp (Dir. Wei Hu)
Rating: 4.5/5

Butter Lamp eschews conventional plot and character development to pursue a simple thematic question, and presents the viewer with about a half-dozen short scenes shot from the same, stagnant camera angle. Groups of Tibetan villagers pose for pictures in front of a series of professionally designed scenic backdrops that also serve to block Butter Lamp’s audience from seeing what lies beyond, until the big reveal at the end when the photographer packs up shop.

This design has more in common with the rules of symphony than movies. Butter Lamp’s short scenes function like movements. Director Wei Hu’s motif is modernity’s influence on marginalized cultures and traditions, and each little scene with photographer, assistant, and a new group of subjects offers a variation on that theme. In the opening sequence, the photographer pulls the only woman who is wearing a modern synthetic jacket to the front row, where she’ll be more easily seen among her traditionally garbed family. This family has commissioned portraits in front of traditional Chinese landmarks, signifying cultural heritage. As Butter Lamp advances, the backdrops people choose for their pictures grow further and further from that sort of traditional space. When the reveal moment finally comes after the photographer’s assistance tears down the backdrop, the final frames of the film deliver (a bit heavy-handedly) on the foreshadowing of the first 10 minutes.

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