It used to be harder to see all of the Oscar nominated short films In that past you used to have to hope that one of these potential gems would be showing before a feature at random or as part of a larger package of shorts that go screened in various ways throughout the year. It’s still pretty hard to see all of the ones nominated for the documentary prize, but thanks to the TIFF Bell Lightbox there’s still a chance to catch those nominated for Best Live Action and Animated Short. Some of these have even played either TIFF or at the Lightbox before.
Two of the nominees for the Live Action prize are making return engagements to the Lightbox. The Irish import Boogaloo and Graham played the festival proper this past September as one of the selections for the new Short Cuts International. It’s a sweet tale about two young boys in 1978 Belfast – Malachy and his younger sibling Jamsey – who are gifted a pair of baby chicks by their underemployed pa. When their much sterner mother becomes pregnant, the boys might be forced into getting rid of their now beloved pets. Director Michael Lennox and writer Ronan Blaney convey a nice sense of time and space. It’s an old school story about growing up awkwardly, but outside of one key sequence and shots of some soldiers, the film never attempts to milk Northern Irelands Troubles for any sort of false dramatics. It keeps things about the kids, as it should be.
Mat Kirkby’s British short The Phone Call played as part of the Lightbox’s first star-studded series of Short Cuts back in October. It’s a tense, mournful, and ultimately hopeful piece about a crisis hotline worker (a wonderful Sally Hawkins) trying to talk a traumatized and depressed old man (voiced brilliantly by a never glimpsed Jim Broadbent) into getting help after ingesting some pills in a suicide attempt. The chemistry between Hawkins and Broadbent is electrifying, but it also begs to answer a question that’s often never posed in such films: what happens when a crisis worker becomes emotionally invested in the call they’re trying to resolve?
Also hopeful despite some difficult subject matter is Talkhon Hamzavi’s Parvaneh. The titular character is a young, female Afghan in Europe (Nissa Kashani, in a great performance). She can’t legally work, has no ID, lives in a crappy hostel in the middle of nowhere, and desperately needs to go to Zurich to send money back to her family. She finds help in the form of a young punk rocker (Cheryl Graf), and as they become unlikely friends and spend a wild night together, they realize that although they have different problems in their lives, the power of human kindness and decency is universal. It’s a lovely little film, and one of the few films to accurately depict the awkward feeling of loneliness that sometimes sets in when one is in their late teens.
The other two nominees for the live action prize are decidedly less successful. Aya was the winner of an Israeli Academy Award for Best Short Film, which is a bit of a head scratcher because outside of two good lead performances, there’s precious little happening. After being asked at an airport to wait for a taxi driver’s pick-up while he movies his car from a loading zone, Aya (Sarah Adler) pretends to be the driver when the man who arrives (Ulrich Thomsen) seems kind and interesting. The film turns into an extended road trip to Jerusalem where the open and chatty Aya looks to get the closed-off judge of a piano competition to open up, but directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis play things far too coy without giving either character much of anything interesting or insightful to say. It’s the longest of the shorts, and man does it feel like it.
Then there’s Butter Lamp from Hu Wei (which played Cannes Critics Week in 2013), a documentary styled look at a photographer who snaps photos of travelling Tibetan families, kids, and couples in front of fake picturesque backdrops. It’s the most artful of the shorts since there’s no narrative. It’s literally just the photographer posing people, taking the pictures, and leaving at the end. But there should be something more politically interesting about such a potentially charged premise. It feels like only half a short.
As for the animated shorts, three have previously played under the TIFF umbrella, one has probably been seen by a bunch of people, and one is making its way to a larger audience. The tone of these shorts are also largely NOT for young kids. The tone of these shorts range from bittersweet to crushingly depressing. They’re also all really well done without a bad or off one in the bunch.
Feast comes from Disney, and most will probably recognize it as the short that played before Big Hero 6. This tale of a precious pooch who slowly has to come to terms with a new diet as his master goes through some life changes is in line with the rest of its nominees. It wonderfully packs a lot of depth and complex emotion into a small amount of time.
Very different, but still just as complex is the Canadian NFB co-produced Me and My Moulton. A slice of life story told by the middle child in a group of three sisters growing up in 1965 Norway, it’s the kind of loosely structured coming of age story that takes time to build characters while gradually leading to a great final point. Torill Kove’s work is gorgeously drawn and full of warmth, wit, and some clever sight gags. It leads to something of a dark truth for kids as they get older, but it’s easily the least emotionally wrenching of the bunch.
Two of the shorts are a lot more adult in tone, and both deal with life and death in their own, way. The 3D animated Dutch short A Single Life (which played at the festival last year alongside Me and My Moulton, but in different programs) involves a woman who finds a mysterious record on her doorstep that can speed up and slow down life. It’s the least of the shorts thanks to a pretty one note premise, but it does precisely what it has to.
Daisy Jacobs’ The Bigger Picture is the tale of two brothers (one kind, caring, and increasingly frustrated, the other aloof, arrogant, kind of useless, and quick to take credit) trying to deal with the impending death of their ailing mother. This British entry makes the most of an animation style that’s evocative of a great painting to elevate the material the level of a sad and wrenching tearjerker. It’s pretty tough, especially for anyone who has suffered a similar loss of a family member, but it builds to a perfectly cathartic moment of togetherness.
But the most unassumingly stirring film of the program is The Dam Keeper – which played TIFF Kids last year and comes narrated by Lars Mikkelsen (the equally talented and underrated brother of Mads). The only thing stopping a village populated with various animals from plunging into an encroaching and deadly darkness is a young orphaned pig tasked with operating a windmill every morning to blow back the nastiness. Instead of being lauded for his efforts upon going to school every day, he’s mercilessly bullied by his classmates in some of the cruellest possible ways. (Seriously, it’s not fun to watch.) He finds a sympathetic friend in a new kid, a kindly, artistically minded fox. Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi’s story takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns that arguably makes it too traumatic for little kids, but it’s certainly worthwhile. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling it, but this one definitely earns its nomination.
So what do I think will win the awards? I don’t see anything beating Feast for the animated prize since it’s the most easily recognized of the bunch, but part of me hopes enough people see The Dam Keeper. As for the live action efforts I’m rooting for the simply effective Parvaneh, but I wouldn’t be upset if the well acted star power of The Phone Call wins out. And this week at The Lightbox, you can be one step further into potentially winning your Oscar pool instead of just blindly guessing.