During the last two years I found myself forming something of a new end of year tradition for myself by going to see the Oscar nominated live action shorts. Unlike the documentary shorts (which are very easy to track down online and on Netflix) and the animated shorts (which are usually very short), the live action shorts seem to me to be the ones that really benefit from going to the package that gets put into theaters by a company called ShortsTV. These theatrical presentations have become increasingly popular over the years but could be in danger given that the short categories are probably going to be on the chopping block in the near future in the Academy’s unending quest to shorten its telecast at the expense of its integrity. That said, if they keep nominating classes of shorts like the ones this year that could hurt this little tradition as well. Personally, I’d say this is actually the best roster of live action shorts they’ve nominated in the three years I’ve been paying attention (with one notable exception) but they are decidedly not going to be for all tastes. All five of these nominees is rather dark and some are downright grim. Child endangerment is something of a running theme and audiences sensitive to such material may not find this to be a very fun evening at the cinema.
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 short of the package is probably the most conventionally entertaining of the five insomuch as its disturbing content fits well within the confines of the mainstream thriller genre and would not be overly noteworthy were it not in this company. The film, a Spanish production directed by a guy named Rodrigo Sorogoyen, begins with a woman in her late twenties and her mother walking into an apartment. You instantly assume that the mother is the mother of the title, but you start to reconsider that when you learn that the younger woman is herself a mother of a small child and the action really kicks off when we learn that this child has somehow found himself alone on a beach in France with his father (who he was vacationing with) having disappeared. The mother frantically tries to get as much information as she can from the child before his battery runs out and there’s a real kinetic charge to watching this mother panicking and doing her best to solve the situation. The film is also done largely in a single shot as it follows the two women around this apartment and incorporates some interesting surround sound elements as well, making it one of the most technically accomplished of the five. It’s big weakness however is that it ends abruptly with no real resolution to the conflict at its center. When watching it I had a hunch that this was meant to be a proof of concept and perhaps opening scene to a longer movie along the lines of The Vanishing or something and sure enough this director is currently working on a feature length adaptation. I’d be interested to see that version, but the way this shorter version ends just kind of makes you feel like you were tricked into watching a (very well made) trailer.
Its Oscar Chances: Low. Some people might want to recognize it simply for being the most professionally made, but that ending is going to be pretty off-putting in general and for better or worse this just doesn’t feel like the film out of the five that will elicit strong reactions one way or the other.
The next short is the first of two French Canadian live action shorts and both one of the best of the shorts here and one of the most disturbing, which is kind of saying something. The film concerns two children of about ten or twelve who are playing outside in the outskirts of a town and are playing a strange game amongst themselves involving various dares and “made you looks.” The two become increasingly oblivious to how dangerous this behavior can be as they wander into a cement mine and continue to play there. Unpleasantness ensues. That description probably makes the film sound rather trite but the film is really good at building tension and the sense of dread it creates is definitely intentional. Director Jérémy Comte clearly has both a command of his craft as well as a sort of perverse view of humanity that I’d like to see expanded on and he adds a little note at the end which I suspect some will hate but which I think does make the film go full circle in a dark but oddly satisfying way.
Its Oscar Chances: In another year I would be a bit more optimistic about this one but a lot of people are going to come out of this bunch of films really sick of seeing children placed in danger and given that this movie does that most clearly they may take that frustration out on it.
The third film in this presentation is another French Canadian film and is the only film of the bunch which doesn’t involve children or bad things happening to them. It’s not exactly a “happy” movie but in this bunch it feels like an oasis in a desert of misery. It involves interactions between a PCA and an elderly woman who lives alone in a house. At a certain point the old woman learns that the PCA is a lesbian married to a woman, which brings back memories of her own past being in love with a woman herself but having never been able to act on this because of “the times.” Ultimately there’s not a whole lot to the film, it’s certainly less eventful than the other four, but it’s reasonably well acted and constructed and I think director Marianne Farley would be well suited to making dramas on a larger canvas.
Its Oscar Chances: This is sort of the opposite of Fauve in that I think it kind of benefits from the company it’s in. In normal years I would say it didn’t have a chance because it lacks anything to really make it stand out and stick in the memory, but this year it’s a total apple in a basket of oranges and could well be something of a protest vote in opposition to what the other films put their audiences through.
The fourth and most controversial of the shorts is Detainment an Irish production set in England which takes another look at the Jamie Bulger murder, which if you’re not familiar with was a case that occurred in Liverpool during the early 90 where two small children kidnapped and murdered a toddler for reasons that appear generally psychotic. The film is largely a reenactment of the interrogation of these two children intercut with reenactments of the moments leading up to the murder. The film is just tasteful enough to not show the actual killing but it is certainly discussed in graphic detail. I will say that the acting in the film, especially amongst the two child actors, is very strong and I suspect that is a big part of why the film received the nomination. However, everything else about this thing seems completely misguided. The family of the real Jamie Bulger have come out against the film, which was not made with their permission. Personally I don’t feel that the making of any movie based on fact should need the blessing of an estate in order to be made, but if you’re going to do that you should at least have an important movie to show for it and this isn’t it. In many ways it falls into the same trap as Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it recreates a really extreme act of human cruelty while ultimately finding nothing to really say about it except to stare into the abyss, and that movie at least had the excuse of bringing attention to a lesser known moment in history, which is certainly not the case with the Bulger murder which is one of the most discussed cases in all of true crime.
Its Oscar Chances: None
The final film in the package is Skin, an American film from an Israeli director which focuses on a family of white supremacists who are covered in hateful tattoos, listen to obscene music, and have no qualms about using grotesque slurs. They’re white supremacists of the worst kind, but they do seem to love their son and at least treat him well. The film does come close to the making the American History X mistake of making a critique of white supremacy which nonetheless gives more screen time to the white supremacists than to the ultimate message, but this problem is somewhat mitigated by the twenty minute format and by the fact that the characters rarely really articulate where they’re coming to these hateful views. Eventually the film builds to a vicious hate crime and then it transforms into a slightly more fanciful revenge scenario where the skin heads “get theirs” in an implausible but interesting way. The film works best if looked at as a sort of modern day fable, but I’m not sure that its conclusions are overly profound.
Its Oscar Chances: Not bad, in fact I’m kind of reluctantly going to predict it simply because its finale stands out as one of the more creative moments in any of the films and because the film at least leaves the audience with some feeling that evil has been defeated by the end, which a lot of the other films lack.
With the 2018 live action shorts we are faced with the limits of programing a block of short films simply through all the options being nominated for an award rather than through a more strategic selection. I’m going to assume it’s just a coincidence that most of the nominees this year are as dark as they are because I doubt any voters necessarily wanted it to turn out this way. I feel like almost all of these shorts would have been better served as the most serious film in an otherwise neutral festival block than played one after the other pretty much inviting comparison between them all.