2017 Oscar-nominated Shorts: LIVE ACTION
What I usually look forward to in the “Live Action” category of the Oscar-nominated Shorts are nominees outside the States. This is typically where we’ll get some great shorts from other countries and this year’s five nominees are no different. There are timely issues rising to the surface in these shorts, such as immigration and racism, there are common themes like loneliness and the desire to connect as well, and also the requisite precocious performances from some talented child actors. What’s bizarre with this year’s nominees is how I felt after watching all five….none of them stood out as “great” or Oscar-worthy.
Many of these shorts felt familiar and predictable, which left me to wonder which of these nominees voters would likely go for. I’m betting on “Silent Nights,” from director Aske Bang and producer Kim Magnusson. This is the sixth nomination for Magnusson in the Live-Action Short category, which he has won twice. The first he shared in 1999 with “Brothers” screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, for “Election Night.” The second he won more recently for “Helium” in 2013, directed by Anders Walter (who will helm the forthcoming “I Kill Giants,” an adaptation of a graphic novel starring Zoe Saldana and Imogen Poots). Clearly, Magnusson knows how to pick directors and has an understanding what will win gold.
Possibly its strongest competitor is “Ennemis Intérieurs,” the directorial debut from prolific French sound editor Selim Azzazi, who helmed a French-Algerian drama revolving around naturalization. I wsn’t really impressed with the heartfelt choir drama “Sing,” from London-based Hungarian director Kristof Deák, and “Timecode” Spanish director Juanjo Giménez’s elegant portrait of loneliness and connection didn’t really offer much beyond quirky choreography.
But if I had to pick my favorite, it would probably be the colorful “La Femme et le TGV” (starring Jane Birkin of “Blow-Up” and “Death on the Nile”, in the lead role) which felt very different than anything else and also had a delightful transportive fable-like quality to it.
These shorts can be currently found in theaters as well as Vimeo On Demand and iTunes. Below is a rundown of my thoughts on these nominees….
ENNEMIS INTERIEURS (ENEMIES WITHIN) – France (27 min.)
First-time director Selim Azzazi has previously worked as a sound editor on films by such acclaimed directors as Oliver Stone (“Alexander”) and Christophe Gans (the recent French update of “Beauty and the Beast”). This tale set in 1990s France during the Algerian civil war was also written by Azzazi, who draws upon his deceased father’s own experiences seeking French citizenship. Hassam Ghancy plays a divorced Algerian father who is being against a police investigator (played by Najib Oudghiri) charged with uncovering homegrown terrorists. (Ironically, both of these actors starred in “Rendition” which was part of the deluge of terrorist movies during the aughts). For a short, a story which primarily takes place in an interrogation room goes on a little longer than needed, but the tension and the pressure received and applied by each actor is palpable. Although it’s not a modern-day story, the fact that it very much feels like it could be speaks volumes about how prejudice and xenophobia is sadly still relevant.
SILENT NIGHTS – Denmark (30 min.)
Of all the Live-Action Short nominees there is usually one that shows potential in becoming a full-length feature. For me,”Silent Nights”, from Danish actor/writer/director Aske Bang, is that short. There’s a lot going on in this romantic drama, set in Denmark during the 2016 Christmas/New Year’s holiday season, so much that I found myself wanting to know more about the two main characters and their lives before and after they meet. Inger (Malene Beltoft) is a young Danish woman who spends her time taking care of her racist alcoholic mother and volunteering at the local Salvation Army shelter, which is where she meets and falls in love with Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah), a Ghanaian man who has a wife and children back relying on him for money back in his country. His secret eventually surfaces in a predictable manner, which strains the young couple’s new relationship. “Silent Nights” benefits from Beltoft’s earnest and vulnerable performance, but left me wondering how much this story would benefit from expanding it to a feature. Although it’s a story that had familiar elements, the characters pulled me in and kept me curious.
TIMECODE – Spain (15 min.)
“Timecode” won the Short Film Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year and is the 9th short film for Spanish director Juanjo Giménez. He prodcuced and co-wrote this story with Pere Altimira, that follows two security guards, Luna (Lali Ayguadé) and Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) who work alternate shifts at a Madrid parking garage and wind up leaving lyrical messages in the form of expressive dance moves that are captured on the numerous surveillance cameras populating their workplace. It’s a humorous and expressive tale that feels a bit too short. Not that I could see “Timecode” expanded into a feature, it’s just that there really wasn’t enough here to get invested other than the spasmatic modern dance the two engage in. It’s original and semi-sweet, but ultimately kind of forgettable.
LE FEMME ET LE TGV – Switzerland/France (30 min.)
There something to be said for the satisfaction of daily repetition of even the mundane and tedious tasks in life. That’s what it feels Swiss filmmaker Timo Von Gunten is emphasizing here with the touching “Le Femme Et Le TGV”, a sweet romantic comedy which brings to mind Jim Jarmusch’s recent “Paterson”. Also known as “The Railroad Lady”, the story follows cheery septuagenarian Elise (Jane Birkin), who has waved a flag out her window at the train that passes by her home every morning for three decades. One day she receives a note that has been tossed out the conductor’s window and soon the two begin a poetic correspondence that brightens the lonely woman’s life. When the train line changes course, Elise must set out on an unchartered path and find her mystery man. It boggles the mind that Von Gunten is essentially self-taught and apparently still lives at home with his parents. This feels like it would be a short story from Mike Leigh and it’s an absolute delight to see legendary actress/model Birkin ( the mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg) in such a rich role. It was easy to get swept up and lost in this encouraging small town tale that will leave viewers both satisfied and whelmed.
SING – Hungary (25 min.)
Set in Budapest in 1991, where a grade school choir teacher takes a cruel and unusual approach to maintaining the school’s award-winning status, “Sing” marks only the second time Hungary has earned a nomination in this category since 1963’s “Concert”, directed by István Szabó, who would go on to direct “Mephisto”, Hungary’s first Foreign Language Film Oscar winner. “Sing” follows a recently-transfered girl who takes it upon herself to investigate her choir teacher and in doing so uncovers a dark secret about the truth behind the choir’s success. Sadly, this short had the most predictable storyline out of all the nominees, leaving it to be the most unsatisfying as well. It’s too bad since I really liked the actors in “Sing” (“Mindenki”), but the story the are in and how, in particular, the choir instructor is written, really rubbed me the wrong way. There really was no explanation for her behavior and I found it quite surprising and curious that it’s all based on true events. I like the acting in “Sing” and it was filmed well, but it’s major plotline feels underwhelmed by its obvious outcome.