Thursday, February 11, 2016

Oscar Predictions: Best Live Action Short Film

A scene from Basil Khalil's Oscar-nominated short film Ava Maria

With two and a half weeks to go, there’s still plenty of time to develop some opinions on the Oscar nominated films. Although not slated for pay-per-view distribution until the 23rd of February, the Oscar nominated short films are still screening in select movie theatres. This week, I’m tackling the five nominees for Best Live Action Short Film, ranking them from weakest to strongest.

#5. Ave MariaAve Maria from director Basil Khalil is a 15-minute film that tells the "odd couple" story of a family of Jewish Israeli settlers crashing their car into a convent in the West Bank. The family, consisting of a young couple and a curmudgeonly and incontinent elderly mother, are stranded and must turn to the five Palestinian nuns for help. To complicate matters, the nuns have each taken a vow of silence. Despite the potentially heavy political overtones, the piece is light-hearted and comedic, showing how two very different groups can work together and compromise in order to reach an "unorthodox" (to borrow a pun from the Oscars website) solution that benefits everyone. While the conflict may arise from two old and traditional cultures clashing, Ave Maria's humour, by contrast, is very modern and situational in nature; there are no cultural cheap shots or hokey prime time gags here. The cinematography and setting are as simple and unpretentious as the nuns themselves, but the tone Khalil strikes feels like something out of a Wes Anderson film. It was cute and light, a welcome respite from some of the heavier subjects it’s competing against.

Matthew Needham in Stutterer.

#4. Stutterer – In this nominated short from Ireland and the UK, a young typographer with a debilitating speech impediment struggles with meeting his online girlfriend in person. Clocking in at just 12 minutes, it is the shortest of the nominated films in this category but perhaps also the most personal. First time director Benjamin Cleary uses close-ups and eloquent inner monologue voice-overs to create a sense of intimacy between the audience and the film’s subject Greenwood (yes, that is his first name) whose loneliness, frustration, and stifled charm is skillfully articulated by actor Matthew Needham. Parts of the film are nicely stylized: the opening title card appears superimposed on a colourful, lit-up apartment building at night and gives way to an extreme close up of Greenwood’s mouth as he tries, and ultimately fails, to make a straightforward phone call to his internet service provider. The film succeeds in portraying Greenwood as a sympathetic character; his frustration is palpable without being scary. Such is my issue with Stutterer however: I find Greenwood just a little too likeable. The “eccentric but charming” recluse angle peaked with 2001’s Amélie and, 15 years later, it registers as somehow dishonest and insincere. Greenwood is perfectly wonderful: he’s attractive, talented, witty, has a great job; he has a hipster palace showroom of an apartment; he cooks and, despite his crippling loneliness, actually finds the willpower to clean up after himself and dress well. Are we really at a point still where a stutter is a convincing enough reason for a fantastic hipster unicorn prince like Greenwood to languish, wallowing in his solitude? Maybe the point is not so much that other people feel Greenwood is unworthy of love but rather that Greenwood himself feels that way. Whatever the case, while the film was definitely funny and often beautiful, the sentiment rang a little hollow for me.

Julia Pointner and Simon Schwarz in Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Okay).

#3. Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Okay) – Germany’s contribution to the nominee list boasts the longest running time in its category but, to its credit, doesn’t feel that way. What begins as a heartwarming picture of a divorced father picking up his 8-year-old daughter for a routine weekend slowly unfurls into something entirely different as it dawns on the audience (and on little Lea, portrayed by the totally adorable and astonishingly talented Julia Pointner) that Papa Baumgartner (Simon Schwarz) is intending to kidnap his daughter and flee the country. Director Patrick Vollrath handles a delicate story here with great care and skill. He doesn’t make anyone out to be the token “bad guy” one would expect in a film of this nature; instead, he constructs a realistic picture of people caught in a unanimously bad situation. Vollrath’s piece is compelling precisely because it decides to show and not tell. Dialogue, for the most part, was ad-libbed between Schwarz and Pointner. Their only direction was to stay in character and not to look at the camera. The freedom the actors were granted, coupled with the camera work (consistently, the camera stays very close to Schwarz and Pointner throughout), results in a father/daughter relationship at the centre of the film that feels warm, natural, and genuine in spite of the harrowing and stressful circumstances the characters encounter. Finding the right actors was essential to this film’s success and Schwarz and Pointner deliver. The story is very real, very subtle, and totally compelling.

Andi Bajgora and Lum Veseli in Shok.

#2. Shok – I am having a really hard time placing Kosovo’s first film to be nominated for an Oscar in my second-place slot. I loved it; the film was captivating, visually stunning, haunting, and well-executed. By director Jamie Donoughue, Shok focuses on two young boys who are best friends during the Kosovo War in 1998. Unaware of the real danger enveloping them in the way only young children can be, Oki and Petrit forge some questionable business relationships selling cigarette papers to the occupying Serbian troops. What begins as a youthful game of pretend bravado culminates in tragedy as the Serbian soldiers ruthlessly pursue their military agenda, shattering the trust the Oki and Petrit have placed in them. What follows is a story not only of friendship, but of a shared loss of innocence as Oki and Petrit realize, all too late, that their faith in the humanity of their enemy was naïve. Visually, the film is strangely beautiful. Lush greenery and landscapes dwarf dilapidated houses and buildings, encouraging the audience to forget sometimes, as Oki and Petrit must do, that this is a war zone and not a playground. Finding the right child actors to play the two boys at the centre of a story like this is no easy feat as well and Andi Bagjoran as Oki and Lum Veseli as Petrit shoulder the weight of this drama with skill beyond their years.

Layla Alizada in Day One.

#1. Day One – Director Henry Hughes brings his own personal experience to the table in this short film depicting an Afghan-American woman’s first day on the job as an interpreter accompanying the U.S. military to Afghanistan. Formerly a paratrooper from an army family, Hughes cites a real-life interpreter during one of his tours in Afghanistan as his inspiration for the film. What results is an intensely human story parked squarely at the intersection of gender, culture, and politics. Interpreter Feda (Layla Alizada) approaches her new position with eagerness only to be pushed to her physical and emotional limits on a mission to capture a bomb-maker. The difficulties facing Feda come to head at the bomb-maker’s home when his pregnant wife unexpectedly goes into labor. Due to gender and language barriers, Feda is charged with delivering the baby but the situation turns dire as unexpected medical complications arise. The climax of Day One throws an incredibly diverse and often oppositional medley of people into a life or death situation and forces them to acknowledge each other’s humanity a rare experience in both war and war films. The film resists getting too political (save for one moment, when an exhausted Feda exclaims, “We never should have come here,” in reference to the bomb-maker’s house and also probably Afghanistan) and takes a more human bent, also managing to tell a second story about Feda herself as she wrestles with her own feelings on everything from motherhood to heritage.

Ultimately, at a time when Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States, the humanizing aspect of Day One is incredibly relevant and valuable. Pegging Day One as the winner of the Live Action Short Film category, I admit, is an ethnocentric choice. American war films are probably not as significant in Kosovo, or Germany, or Ireland, I’m sure, as they are to a North American audience, but I think the message, and the willingness to explore these incredibly complex questions like gender and cultural identity, is something that resonates globally, setting it apart from its comparably captivating and well-made competitors.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

No comments:

Post a Comment