The Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts: Is Riz the Winner?

It is disappointing to report that the Oscar-nominated live action shorts are not very good this year. This category might be the most inconsistent race annually. They have some strong performances, but many of the films also feel like COVID projects marked by minimalist casts and crews. Four of the five nominees this year are mostly forgettable, but they have their hearts in the right place. That’s not great when they stand as the best of the best. One votes for what a film is, not what it represents or what it aspires to be. It’s hard to get excited about any of these films.

One might suggest taking a pee break when they declare a winner from the Oscar-nominated live action shorts, but the Academy beat us to the punch. They won’t be presenting the shorts live this year, but rather as edited snippets slapped together from a pre-show announcement. The docs and animated films are great, but the live action nominees aren’t doing the short branch any favours this year. Here are the five films nominated in the Oscar race for Best Live Action Short Film.

 

On My Mind

Exhibit the first in the case against the merits of the Oscar-nominated live action shorts is On My Mind. The film features three actors in one room. A man walks into a bar, orders a shot, and slaps down some money for the karaoke machine. He starts to croon “Always on My Mind,” but stutters and stops. The bartender is sympathetic and taken by his shaky nerves. The cranky owner, meanwhile, wishes he’d shut up. The man keeps singing, however, until the bartender can record the perfect take.

On My Mind builds a rather predictable climax. The performances are admirable, but can’t overcome the mawkish set-up. The dingy empty room, moreover, drains the dramatic energy. This ditty is sweet, but awfully pedestrian for an Oscar nominee. It makes Green Book look like Drive My Car. Perhaps this reviewer is too cynical, but it’s mawkish and cheaply produced. Denmark does much better by Flee this year.

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Ala Kachuu – Take and Run

This Swiss drama is a tender portrait of a young Kyrgyz woman, Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova), who leaves home at 19. She wants to study and she escapes rural life to live with a friend in the city. Then, one day, she’s working in a café when three men come looking for her friend. When she closes up shop for the day, they kidnap her and bring her back to the countryside. The kidnapper is the would-be husband of Sezim’s friend. In her absence, he decides that Sezim will do.

Take and Run considers the ongoing subjugation of women who are forced into marriage and deprived of opportunities and independence. Turdumamatova gives a compelling performance as the young woman who yearns to be free. However, writer/director Maria Brendle treads in familiar territory here. Many films have covered this terrain before, even among the Oscar-nominated live action shorts of previous years (ex: Brotherhood). If it doesn’t necessarily offer much new, Take and Run nevertheless reminds audiences of an ongoing human rights issue.

The Dress

Will voters say yes to The Dress? Probably not. This offbeat character study is the annual example that the Academy might want to consider some way of honouring performances in shorts, rather than some of the films themselves. Anna Dzieduszycka is exceptionally good as Julia, a Polish dwarf who is horny as heck and DTF. She hooks up with a trucker at a seedy motel and dreams of finer things.

There’s a great performance here and one wishes The Dress wore its intentions a little better. Short films like this one often feel more like an actor’s audition tape or a director’s demo for a feature. There’s not enough to carry a thirty-minute film, however. It becomes one-note very quickly and the story, or lack thereof, doesn’t do Dzieduszycka any favours. It’s a slog.

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Please Hold

Every year, the shorts branch nominates a film that basically consists of little other than one person in a room. These films are never the standouts. Particularly after two years of COVID, when literally everyone is filming a DIY project for something to do, the novelty has worn off. Such exercises in low-budget filmmaking are akin to lipstick on a pig.

That’s the case here with Please Hold. It’s another guy-stuck-in-a-room movie. One wonders what the Academy voters of all people see in these flicks. The film begins with twenty-something Latino Mateo (Erick Lopez) arrested on unknown charges. He’s thrown into a cell where he has nothing to communicate with, except for a Siri-like cellmate. The automated voice assesses his odds for a guilty verdict and lets him call the outside world at usurious rates. Lopez holds the drama best he can and effectively conveys Mateo’s frightened and frazzled state, but he has little to work with. Such stagey and enclosed productions often accentuate their artifice, and Please Hold feels more like a student project or exercise than a dramatic work. It’s a bit of a surprise nominee, considering the acclaim for director K.D. Dávila’s feature Emergency at Sundance this year, which promises better things.

The Long Goodbye

Riz Ahmed could find himself an Oscar winner for The Long Goodbye, but don’t let the reviews of the four other nominees suggest a win would be by default. The Long Goodbye fares much better than its competitors do in balancing “the message” with “the movie.” This is a bold and invigorating work.

Ahmed stars as Riz, who sees a family wedding crashed by the cops. The fuzz violently rips the family apart and separates the children. As The Long Goodbye steps out of the apartment and into a dystopian reality that very much resembles the here-and-now of #DefundThePolice campaigns, it evolves into a visceral examination of systemic racism. As Riz stands up to the cops, he addresses them in a propulsive rap articulation. “Why do you hate us?” he asks the cops and, in turn, the viewers with poetic rage.  Handheld camerawork makes his address intimate and immediate. This film just grabs you in a way that the others don’t. It’s urgent and spoken like poetry from the heart. Ahmed’s performance, like Dzieduszycka’s in The Dress, proves that some of the best work isn’t necessarily found in features. If Ahmed wins here, his performance deserves much of the credit.

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The Oscar-nominated Live Action shorts open at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Feb. 25.



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