Some of the finest directors working today cut their teeth on (and occasionally return to) short films. Look at any Pixar film today, and I promise you whoever directed it, made shorts for the animation house first to prove their merit. It’s now become a regular part of Oscar season that a couple of weeks after the nominees are released, three programs of shorts are released in theaters (technically four, since the Documentary Shorts are usually divided into two parts). Although I didn’t get a chance to watch the doc shorts this year, I have gone through all of the animated and live action offerings, and am happy to share with you a few highlights.
Of the Animated Shorts nominees, odds are you’ve already seen the Pixar work Piper, one of their all-time cutest and most photorealistic, from director Alan Barillaro, concerning a sandpiper chick who learns to leave the nest and brave the shoreline in search of food buried under the sand and protected to a degree by terrifying and unpredictable waves.
The other animated short I’d already seen was Borrowed Time, a dark and moving story of a worn out sheriff who is on the verge of ending his life, still reeling from the guilt of his father’s death years earlier. This film made the rounds online late last year because it was made by two Pixar animators as a side project, and it’s probably my favorite of the nominees.
Rounding out the five entries (which are supplemented by a few additional shorts that were in in contention for the awards) are the music-centric Pearl, told entirely from the inside of a car that a guitar-playing father and his daughter live in, until he realizes that living in a car is no good for a kid, so he gets a job and makes it possible for her to live out her rock star dreams. It’s probably noteworthy to mention that Pearl is the first virtual reality project to be nominated for an Academy Award. You can watch it normally on YouTube for free below, but it shines on VR devices such as the HTC Vive or Google Cardboard if you happen to have one laying around.
Those first three entries are all from the United States, with the remaining two coming from Canada: Blind Vaysha, about a girl who can only see the past in one eye and the future in the other, making it impossible to function normally in the world; and the 35-minute Pear Cider and Cigarettes, from writer-director Robert Valley, a sort of animated graphic novel about the narrator’s troubled friendship with a thrill junkie named Techno Stypes, whose failing liver sets the two off on an adventure in China that doesn’t end well for either.
While the Animated works run just under 90 minutes, the Live Action shorts program goes a bit over two hours and features an international array of filmmakers (as in, none from America).
From Hungary, Sing tells the story of a young, shy girl named Zsofi, who is beginning a new school and wants to get involved with the award-winning choir, but when the teacher in charge of choir privately asks her to only mime the words because her voice isn’t strong, it disheartens her and leads to a wonderful, small act of rebellion in all the students. This film is all about the payoff, but it’s a hell of a payoff and the two young lead actresses are quite good.
Denmark’s Silent Nights is a heartbreaking love story about an immigrant from Ghana who has moved to Denmark to make money to send back to his wife and three children. He meets a volunteer at the local Salvation Army and homeless shelter, and the two fall in love, with him moving in with her. The longer things go without him telling her the truth about his life in Ghana, the worse things get. The film also does a nice job of illustrating the underlying racism surrounding any area of the world where a large influx of immigrants is happening. Strong stuff, even if the love story borders on soap opera-ish at times.
Timecode from Spain is the charming and mysterious story of two parking lot security guards who work opposite shifts but communicate with each other through a series of “messages” left on the security cameras of the previous shifts. This is a wonderful experience.
My favorite of the Live Action shorts is France’s Ennemis Interieurs (Enemies Within), an intense, 25-minute interrogation sequence set in mid-1990s France between an French-Algerian man applying for citizenship and an immigration official who is attempting to see if he has any connections to terror groups. Using every underhanded, indefensible trick in the book, the interrogator pressures the poor man who has lived in France or Algeria (a French colony when he was born) his entire life, so the idea of wanting to hurt this country he loves is inconceivable, which makes no difference to his inquisitor, who also happens to be of Middle Eastern descent. It’s a brutal and paranoid journey the two men go on together, but the acting is note perfect and the lessons learned are about as contemporary as you could ask for.
Finally, there is La Femme et la TGV, from Switzerland, which is said to be inspired by true events. Jane Birkin plays Elise, an elderly woman who begins and ends each day waving to the passing train that goes right by her house to and from its destination. One day, she finds a letter from the driver in her yard, thanking her for being the highlight of his day, and thus begins a sweet correspondence between the two that alters Elise’s sense of purpose. She runs a bakery in town and has a grown son who wants to put her in an old folks home, but these letters have energized her and given her a new outlook on life’s possibilities. The film is dripping with lightweight dramatics, but it certain leaves us with a warm feeling inside. Plus the Swiss countryside is shot beautifully.
The Animated and Live Action Shorts programs open today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, while the two-part Documentary Shorts program begins playing Saturday, Feb. 11 at the Music Box Theatre.