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.


La Parka
Rating: 4.5/5

I don’t know. I guess we have a choice in what we do in life — La Parka refers to a man, “The Reaper,” in English, who kills bulls at a slaughterhouse — thousands of bulls, maybe millions, I don’t know, it doesn’t really matter, “a lot” seems sufficient, “too many,” more accurate, biased. He narrates over footage of the slaughterhouse, everything dripping with gristle and blood; wet, metallic, pooling, beautiful in its grotesque way. The man narrates, “I would never kill a human, they are not animals. I only kill bulls because I have to,” but earlier, he says, “I became curious about killing bulls and immediately took a liking to it,” and earlier, still: “I don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. Hell is what I live through everyday.” He can quit, but has an addiction to doing something he, on some level, knows is wrong (“They feel just like we do, I see them crying, they have tears coming from their eyes,” he says), but also enjoys and validates, and I don’t know, I can’t blame him; there is something about the spattering on the wall from shit and innards and small parts and blood that is attractive and really wonderful and representative of something that is profound and within myself, some inborn violence. I wanted to see it.

But I don’t know. He can quit, if he sees it as wrong. He made a choice to be there. And you can fault someone for their choices, if they have them — to work one place rather than another, to kill things rather than let things live. I hate the meat industry. I feel little empathy, let alone sympathy, for the titular narrator. I guess he has a choice, but he’d have to find another job, and he has a family, other lives he’s looking out for. And, anyway, would you blame the cog or the machine, etc., etc.? I think La Parka is an achievement in objectivity. It doesn’t take sides or tell you anything you don’t already know, if you’d thought about the meat industry at all. It’s just provoking you. “Look, this is what this actually looks like. And, listen, this is the guy who kills the animals you eat.” He has a bizarre and profound awareness of himself — sad and indifferent. He knows what he is doing is hurtful — full of pain, at least — but doesn’t see the exit sign in the distance, isn’t sure if it’s there. He has a choice, but not a clear or especially good one; might as well keep on, killing.

Our Curse (Dir. Tomasz Sliwinski)
Rating: 3.5/5

This is the first time I have seen a baby, an infant, scared of its own death; that innate struggling, pushing against it-doesn’t-know-what, we-don’t-know-what, just knowing that this is not going to end well. Our Curse is about an infant born with Ondine’s Curse, a rare disease wherein the victim stops breathing when he falls asleep, and his young parents. They sit on their couch, heavy sighing of the ventilator heaving in the background, saying things like, “This is only the beginning…” and “I don’t know how we can…” But the scene in which they change out the tube that goes in their baby’s throat is the centerpiece of everything; Leo, the baby, has terror in his eyes, quaking, shaking, looking around, the parents making cooing sounds that do nothing for him, there is nothing that can be done for him, he’s not even crying, he can’t cry, he is just shaking and looking around and his mouth is open, the whole in his throat wheezing, gaping, he does not understand what is happening, he fears for his life and has no idea what life is.

There is some part of me that believes the documentary format was invented for films like Our Curse: films that tell a story that needs to be told, and it just so happens that the story is true. It would be a piece of fiction, except that these are the real people and this is really happening. But this isn’t that film. It could have been. There are a good 10 minutes of Our Curse that are genuinely frightening and sad and full of pathos and meaning, but then, it is only a half-hour long, and doesn’t take its time, creating more questions than it answers, passively wondering, “This disease exists, and, man, isn’t that a motherfucker?” I wonder if Leo will grow any older, if he will die soon or is dead now, or if he will ever have some semblance of a life, or get old enough to understand that he is cursed and so are his parents, if he will grow up to understand that he knows the true meaning of the word “unfortunate” and embodies it entirely? This documentary should have been made over the course of 10 or 20 years, but I think it only took a couple of months. It isn’t lazy, but just thoughtless, shortsighted. There are moments here I don’t think I’ll ever forget, trapped inside an unmemorable film.

Joanna (Dir. Aneta Kopacz)
Rating: 3/5

Polish director Aneta Kopacz heard of Joanna Salyga — a young mother with terminal cancer — after reading a newspaper article on her popular blog, and the subsequent film is a study of the final months of Joanna’s life with her husband and 5-year-old son. As is to be expected, the result is contemplative and poignant, a montage of domestic moments imbued with sadness and timelessness and the pain of a son’s life beginning as a mother’s life ends. This end-of-life contemplation is intertwined with scenes of domestic mundanity, encapsulated perfectly in a scene wherein Joanna types and reads out a document of life advice for her son while he casually plays with Legos on the bedroom floor. The rigid, negotiation-type feel of the conversations between Joanna and her son (“Do you ever laugh at anybody?” “I won’t comment on that subject.”) are contrasted against her casual talks with her husband on her imminent death (“I will hold an audition for your next wife on my blog. Just, Jesus, let’s find someone with no cancer.”). Like the final months of someone’s life, the film has a dreamlike quality, slipping in and out of moments of rest and reflection, humdrum conversation and sudden tearful contemplation, until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

White Earth (Dir. J. Christian Jensen)
Rating: 3/5

A train crawls by like a caterpillar, with an unending number of linked cars trailing behind it, wrapping around a snow-white hill. A young boy speculates that the endless procession of unmarked train cars all contains one cargo: oil. J. Christian Jensen’s White Earth is a documentary short focusing on a small town of the same name in North Dakota experiencing a modern-day oil boom, with a subsequent explosion in population to match. With a sudden jump from 60 to 500 by one estimate, White Earth is the modern form of a company town — according to the film’s young narrator, workers are drawn to White Earth for the promise of oil money, only to discover their rent is almost equal to their pay. Covered in snow and filled with overstuffed RVs and trucks with decals saying things like ‘Drillin’ Deep, Pumpin’ Hard,’ the whole place has the feel of a frontier town. There’s even a truck emblazoned with the words ‘Chasing a Dream.’ Jensen’s film is mostly constructed of interviews with the kids of oil workers, many of whom have mixed feelings about the oil rigs. Stuck in the problematic idea that the oil on the one hand provides her parents with employment and on the other hand takes up virtually all of their free time, a girl at one point daydreams: “When I’m really old, I think that North Dakota will be back to normal.” The short is filled with evocative imagery, but the slightly moralistic tone that sets in detracts from what could be an even more thought-provoking study of a modern-day boomtown.



Me and My Moulton (Dir. Torill Kove)
Rating: 3.5/5

Norwegian-Canadian director Torill Kove already has won an Academy Award once, for her 2006 animated short The Danish Poet. Her new film, Me and My Moulton, maintains her previous short’s bright and childlike aesthetic, but pairs it with a significantly more complex and nuanced style of storytelling. In Moulton, Kove reflects on her childhood in Norway, growing up as the daughter of modernist architects and wishing for nothing more than to be a regular family like everyone else. The bright 60s colors and humble animations, recalling the work of artists like Rutu Modan and Hergé, help to playfully illuminate recalled details such as a carpet so soft you can leave footprints on it, and Kove’s horror and embarrassment at her father’s notably cavalier moustache. The film finely walks a balance between whimsy and stark childhood lessons, to great effect. The Moulton in question — a sort of 60s folding bike given by Kove’s parents to their embarrassed daughters — becomes the perfect metaphor for the compromises between the childhood you wanted and the one you actually had.

The Bigger Picture (Dir. Daisy Jacobs)
Rating: 5/5

Stan Lee has said that, in comics, writing and art play a part in the success of a book, but ultimately it’s the quality of the art that decides it; after all, as you flip through the pages, there’s something in the look of the thing that compels you to take it from the shelf to the cash register. It’s got to connect with you. But, ultimately, they both matter. The Bigger Picture has an incredible look about it; it is a series of animated paintings, mixed with real props that are manipulated by the paintings. Don’t let me mislead you; it is not a series of paintings, or painted frames. It is a series of individual paintings that have been painted over and over, painted on top of, to create animation. Streaks and smudges of paint are there, layered on top of and wrung out with color. Water comes out of faucets and tea kettles as plastic wrap. Everything is physical.

The writing is as clever as the look of everything. The Bigger Picture concerns two middle-aged men, one a successful businessman, the other, um, not working at the moment, hair frizzed out, more “sensitive,” you’d say, and “not a pleaser,” maybe. Their mother is aging. They’re aging. In the first scene, the businessman tells his brother, “I thought about sex every second until I turned 40. Now all I think about is death.” But their mother is dying, and they’re just, as they say, “shuffling along the line.” And she dies. And they shuffle. There are few ways of saying this: The Bigger Picture made me feel something as palpable as the lumps and bubbles of paint it’s made up of. There is a particular sequence when the mother yells for her son, the “sensitive” one, just as he’s gotten into the shower. He jumps out, runs to her. A doctor is called. They ask, “What’s wrong? Is her stomach twisted? Is it constipation?” The doctor says, “Not anymore. You’ll clean her up.” The sensitive son is left to clean up his mother, who’s covered in her own shit, laying in her bed, and she is crying, saying, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK, Mom. I would do anything for you. I love you. It’s OK,” he says.

“I know,” she says, “But I’m sorry.”

This is what truth looks like, and love. I had forgotten.

Feast (Dir. Patrick Osborne)
Rating: 4/5

It’s annoying how good Disney is at this. A world in which Disney and Pixar make or model every single animated project would be starved of variety. If everything looks like Cars 7: Despicable Toys to Train Your Dragon, that comes at the expense of every other idea about how animated movies can look, and that’s a problem.

But damnit, are they ever adept at applying clever storytelling mechanics and effectively blending visual, sonic, and narrative elements into a satisfying little animation-bundle. Feast reduces a dog’s life to a food montage, using the evolution of the little mutt’s mealtime adventures to illustrate a path from back alley rescue to relationship inconvenience to love-saving wingman to adored family pet in just a few minutes. It’s cloying, it’s sentimental, it’s emotionally exploitative, and it’s a lot of fun. If you want to be challenged or surprised, look elsewhere. But if you’re in the market to feel some feelings and you don’t have much time, Feast is your huckleberry. Resisting its charms almost takes an act of will, and what’s the point in fighting it?

A Single Life (Dir. Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, and Job Roggeveen)
Rating: 3.5/5

What if that 45 rpm single you just brought home on vinyl could control the passage of time? Wait, don’t run away, this is a 3-minute animated treacle, not a four-hour Christopher Nolan slog through first-molly-trip ideas about how love might be the fifth dimension of reality. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s fun, it’s simple, and it ends just before it runs out of tricks to play with the core plot mechanic.

The Dam Keeper (Dir. Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi)
Rating: 3/5

The most visually distinctive of the 2015 animation nominees also is the most irritating. The animation is inked in smudgy pastel tones and drawn in the cartoony style of a children’s picture book about barnyard animals. The sooty, melancholy visual affect achieved is an accomplishment, and it’s good to have something that stands so far apart from the digital and clay-based modes that have come to dominate animation.

If only that attractive wrapping paper surrounded a worthwhile package. The Dam Keeper wants to be a grand parable about bullying and what society might lose from failing to protect its most vulnerable. A piglet is in charge of the sole windmill that keeps some kind of toxic fallout cloud from destroying a city of cute young animals. Despite this crucial duty, every other animal in school mocks the piglet’s appearance. As the new girl in school — a fox, naturally — a couple of bullies even give poor piglet a swirly. This shameful behavior ultimately breaks piglet’s spirit, to everyone’s great loss.

Let’s check the list: animals as stand-ins for people? Check; improbable simplicity of the surrounding world? Yes; unambiguous morality? Absolutely. This is a modernist sadsack Aesop’s Fable about the hazards of picking on the odd one out and the tragic consequences of the self-loathing myopia with which a long-time victim may start to see everything around him. It’d be lazy thinking to try to target The Dam Keeper as some environmentalist morality play or cast it as part of an imaginary effort to sissify society by pointing out that bullying is shitty. If anyone feels the need to hate it, it should be more than enough to say that it’s boring and hackneyed without regard to ideology.

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