The Academy Awards are such the perfect capper to a year of cinema that I’ve long enjoyed following them and the rest of award season even though I know it’s all silly at the end of the day. Some years I get pretty deep into the horserace of it all and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with predictions and to follow the narratives around each category. One line I had not crossed up to now was seeking out the short films nominated each year just so I can have a better idea of how to predict those categories, but there’s a first time for everything. Kidding aside, I didn’t really check these out just to win an Oscar pool. Really I was just kind of curious what kinds of movies tend to show up in these categories and see if there were any gems in the bunch. After all, the Best Short film category has at times featured early works by filmmakers who would go on to greater fame. Previous winners and nominees in this category have included Martin McDonagh, Sean Ellis, Taika Waititi, Andrea Arnold, Peter Capaldi, and Taylor Hackford.
Now I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here because I don’t really watch a lot of short films, at least not a lot of short films from this century. I’m not really sure how or why short films get made really. There’s almost no commercial market for them to my knowledge and I don’t really know where they get their budgets from. This is probably a big part of why every single one of the short films nominated this year are from Europe, where I’m guessing there are grants and public funding for this sort of thing. In general I tend to view short films as either being a place to test out filmic experiments or to make what are sort of video resumes for young filmmakers trying to show their skill. Most if not all of the shorts this year fall into the latter category, or at least feel like they do. Most of them use fairly conventional narrative techniques and basically feel like miniature feature stories. Four of them run about a half hour with one exception which runs about fifteen minutes. Two of the shorts are fairly serious and deal with topical subject matter, two tell quirky little stories, and one of them serves more as a sort of visual joke. They’re being released theatrically by a company called ShortsHD, which I believe is also a niche cable network. They’ve programed them into a no frills package and have ordered them so as to space out the different tones involved. I’ll be discussing the films in the order presented by this theatrical exhibition.
Also, please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.
The first film presented is “Sing,” which is a Hungarian short made by a guy named Kristóf Deák, who appears to have been making shorts at least since 2008. The film follows a elementary aged girl named Zsofi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) who is the new kid at a school and is interested in joining the school’s award winning choir, but when she gets there she’s told by the dominating choir director Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) that she didn’t have quite the chops to live up to the choir’s reputation and that she should mime singing instead of actually vocalizing so she doesn’t bring the rest of the choir down with her. So, basically we have the ambition of a young aspiring musician clashing with a dictatorial instructor who puts being number one above the needs of their students… in other words it’s Whiplash with children and less shouting. Of the five nominees this is probably the cleanest and most concise. It’s exactly the kind of story that feels at home in this thirty minute format and it feels neither rushed nor stretched out and while the story feels a little simple there are some layers there. The dictatorial choir teacher does make a few legit points in defense of what she’s doing and it is interesting seeing her try to manipulate these children into following her lead because they don’t really have the sophistication to debate her.
My Grade: B+
Its Oscar Chances: I’d say this one is a bit of a dark horse. It lacks the weight and political heft of a couple of the other nominees and might not stand out as much and it isn’t comedic like two of the other choices, but voters looking for a nice Goldilocks balance might go for it.
The second film presented gets a lot more serious as it, like a number of the films in the various specialized categories this year, focuses on matters of immigration in Europe. It’s called “Silent Nights” and hails from Denmark and was directed by the (awesomely named) Aske Bang. The film follows a Ghanaian man named Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) who has been living on the streets of Copenhagen and meets a young and slightly naïve homeless shelter worker named Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen). Of the five films this one is probably the most densely packed and feels most like a condensed feature film, but not necessarily in a bad way. Where it falters is that it does not really examine these issues of immigration with a whole lot of subtlety and feels more like the work of someone who’s learned about the struggles facing immigrants from reading the newspaper than from someone who really knows what that life is like. Every time that Kwame faces racism it comes in the form of either nationalist thugs on the verge of committing full on hate crimes or old people willing to drop full on racial slurs and the film never really examines the less obvious and more institutional forms of prejudice that are likely the more pressing threats that he’s likely to face. Beyond that there’s kind of just a feeling to it of a young director who’s working a little too hard to try to make certain things feel “gritty.” On the bright side I found the acting here to be quite good and the relationship between Kwame and Inger felt a lot more natural than it could have.
My Grade: B-
Its Oscar Chances: I’d say it has a legit shot. Its density could work to its benefit as it plays more like a complete film than some of the other nominees and the fact that it deals with serious issues will help it, especially considering that it does so with more uplift and hope than the other “serious” nominee this year. Also, if you look behind the curtain you learn that the film’s producer/co-nominee Kim Magnusson actually has a pretty long history in this category having been nominated five times in the past and won twice.
It’s not hard to see why “Timecode” was programed as the middle movie in this block. It effectively provides a respite between the two “heavy” shorts and it also wouldn’t exactly be the appropriate short to either get the ball rolling on things or send people out of the theater. At fifteen minutes it’s about half the length of the other four shorts and it’s also the least dialogue driven and most overtly comedic even if it isn’t necessarily going for laughs per se. Made in Spain by a guy named Juanjo Giménez, the film is about a pair of bored security guards in commercial parking ramp who find a way to pass the time by passing security cam time codes to one another where they’re dancing on camera. Of the five films here this is the one I had pegged more than the others of being a film by a hotshot out of film school trying to show off his skills behind the camera. Researching after the fact this proved to not be true. Juanjo Giménez appears to actually be quite a bit older than his competitors being a man in his fifties who appears to have been working as a producer going back to the 90s. Timecode is very much a light hearted formal exercise that almost could have been made as a silent film if the people involved had been so inclined. I’m not sure the payoff lands quite as well as the filmmakers thought it would but it it’s a fun little film just the same.
My Grade: B
Its Oscar Chances: While a number of these films have won various festival awards Timecode is the only one that can say that it won the Short Film Palme d’Or and much like the films that win the feature Palm d’Or it brags about this in a title card in front of the film. The film’s other big asset is that it stands out from the other four in its brevity and its entertainment value. If the people inclined to vote longer and more serious fare split their votes between the other four nominees this one could benefit.
Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within)
The fourth film here and the second to deal with issues of immigration is “Enemies Within” from the French filmmaker Sélim Azzazi takes the form of a man with Algerian roots doing an interview in order to gain official French citizenship after having lived in France for most of his life. However, the interview takes a bit of a turn at a certain point and suddenly becomes a lot more hostile than you expect it to. The whole process does a pretty good job of illustrating how much immigrants are sort of at the mercy of bureaucracies that are not always working in their best interests. Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri do a very good job of portraying the interviewee and interviewer respectively and the tension in the scenes between them is quite good. The positioning of the film as a series of conversations does work well for the short film format and we do come to learn a lot about the guy over the course of the short. Oddly, the film is actually set in the 90s, possibly to allow for the protagonist to have been born prior to the Algerian revolution, but it certainly looks and feels like a film that’s set today. I think the movie sort of loses steam a bit as it goes and leads up to an ending that doesn’t have quite the impact it’s supposed to, but it does certainly have a lot going for it just the same.
My Grade: B+
Its Oscar Chances: This one might be where the smart money is. It’s got the best odds on Goldderby.com and people looking for weightier and more topical material would probably gravitate towards it, although it along with “Sing” probably have the least showy visual aesthetic and that could hurt it a little.
La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV)
First thing’s first: TGV stands for “Train à Grande Vitesse” which means “High Speed Train” and refers to the bullet trains which go between France and its border countries. This Swiss short looks in on the life of an eccentric woman who owns a boutique bakery and whose main hobby seems to be timing her day to wave a Swiss flag at TGVs as they pass by her home and depicts what she goes through when she becomes pen pals with the engineer of one of the trains. It’s apparently based on a real story and they show some documentary footage of the real lady at the end, but it certainly feels pretty fanciful during the film. The film was directed by a guy named Timo von Gunten, who at twenty seven years old is (I think) the youngest of the directors here but has already been tapped to direct a feature film called “Eifel” about the life of a famous Czech conman named Victor Lustig. The film also sports the one famous actor of the bunch in the form of Jane Birkin, who plays the titular woman and plays her pretty well. All that having been said this feels like the lease distinguished of the five films here to me. Gunten never quite humanizes his protagonist and late in the film where it’s suggested that this experience improves her life it doesn’t quite seem earned. Beyond that the movie just kind of tries to coast on its own quirkiness but really just kind of collapses under it.
My Grade: C
Its Oscar Chances: This one seems like a bit of a longshot, but maybe that’s my own bias talking. The presence of Jane Birkin could turn some eybrows and it may also appeal to some of the… young at heart… Academy members that tend to disproportionately vote in these specialty categories. This isn’t the Documentary Short category and the movies that win are not necessarily the heaviest or the most artistic. If this gives some voters “feels” that could propel it.
All in all I found this roster of shorts to be solid but a little underwhelming. The movies are all pretty solidly in the B- to B+ range and none of them every really jumped out at me as being particularly inspired. I think my favorite out of the lot might actually be “Sing” simply because it seemed most able to get its story across within the time limitations and with the fewest missteps. That said, if you’re not obsessing over the Oscars and aren’t that interested in winning an Oscar pool I don’t know that I’d recommend going out of your way to see these really. Of course the irony to all this is that I’ve kind of come away from this with legitimate arguments for any one of the five winning this thing but as of now (and I reserve the right to change my mind before Oscar night) I’m predicting Silent Nights.
For the record, I’m probably not going to be doing the same for the Animated category. I’ve already seen two of them and I don’t feel like paying to just see three others, especially given that two of them are only ten minutes each. As for the documentary short category, if you know where to look four of the five are available for streaming.