Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Live Action

SingEvery one of these five Live Action Oscar nominees was a winner! A diverse group in subject matter and national origin, though all European, this was one of the consistently best live action collections we’ve seen. Here they are:

  • Sing – a Hungarian film (trailer) directed by Kristóf Deák—what happens when a choral teacher bent on winning an important prize tells some of the children “just don’t sing.” Elementary solidarity (photo)! Charming. (25 minutes)
  • Silent Nights – from Denmark (trailer), directed by Aske Bang. A young Danish woman working for the Salvation Army falls for a poor Ghanian man, who neglects to tell her about the wife and kids back home. Wise words from her boss save her. Generous. (30 minutes)
  • Timecode – a 15-minute film (trailer) from Spain, directed by Juanjo Giménez. The day and night shift security staff at a parking garage exchange the barest civilities as they change places, but find an innovative way to communicate. Hilarious! (15 minutes)(watch it here)
  • Ennemis Intérieurs – this French film (trailer), directed by Selim Azzazi, is a chilling display of how a suspicious government can twist even the most innocent statements into accusations. It takes the form of an interview between a determined policeman of Algerian descent and a French-born Algerian man seeking citizenship in the 1990s, during the Algerian civil war, with obvious application to today’s tensions. Powerful. (28 minutes)
  • La Femme et le TGV – in this Swiss film (trailer & “the making of”), directed by Timo von Gunten and shot in one week, an older woman (Jane Birkin) waves at the TGV train morning and evening before heading to the desultory bakery she owns. When the train engineer tosses a note out to her, a correspondence begins. One day, the train does not come, and she must go in search of a less lonely future. Sweet. (30 minutes)

My favorite? Timecode was the most fun, La Femme the most beautiful, and Ennemis Interieurs the most significant, and the winner, Sing, the sentimental fave.

Coverage of the documentary shorts here.

Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Documentaries

Watani, Syria

Farah, in Watani: My Homeland

Last night’s Oscar ceremony (though I wouldn’t have wished it longer and it couldn’t have been more dramatic) gave such short shrift to the short film nominees, it must have been hard for viewers to get any sense of them. Today’s post, the short documentaries; tomorrow, the live action shorts!

Watching a short film (technically, anything less than 40 minutes, including credits) is like reading a short story: the best ones crystallize the essence of a person or situation, sometimes more memorably than a novel, with all the distractions of backstory, secondary characters, side plots and the like.

Five films were nominated for the documentary shorts, and if you weren’t comfortable with the gritty realities of the war in Syria, you were really out of luck. Three of the films, including the two longest, dwelt with the consequences of that war, made by some very brave filmmakers. The role of “documentaries” in documenting what most of us are protected from came home sharply. Winner in bold.

  • Joe’s Violin, directed by award-winning producer of Kahane Cooperman (24 minutes), which told the story of Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold’s decision to donate his unused violin to a public radio drive. In partnership with the Holland’s Opus Foundation, New York City’s WQXR collected no-longer-used instruments for schools. Joe’s violin went to Brianna Perez, a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (fascinating in its own right) in the nation’s poorest congressional district. When Joe and Brianna meet, the social, cultural, and generational gulfs between them are dissolved by their love of music and this instrument. One hanky. (See it here.)
  • Extremis, a 24-minute Netflix documentary directed by Dan Krauss (interview about the filming). The wrenching decisions family members must make for critically ill patients are explored here. The medical team’s lack of a crystal ball is clear. Perhaps it will motivate viewers to have conversations with family before a medical catastrophe occurs, and not to leave them struggling with impossible choices. If you’ve avoided thinking about these issues, see it here.
  • 4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki (26 minutes), is the story of a Greek Coast Guard captain and crew sent out from the island of Lesbos, day after day, sometimes multiple times a day, in all kinds of weather, to rescue desperate, terrified, and sometimes half-drowned refugees (mostly Syrian) trying to cross the 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Through an accident of geography, the physically and emotionally exhausted Coast Guarders must deal with this enormous humanitarian crisis, unaided by the world’s wealthier countries. (I can think of one. Has a big navy too.) (See it here.)
  • Watani: My Homeland was filmed over three years by director Marcel Mettelsiefen (40 minutes). As Aleppo explodes all around them, four young children live in an abandoned home next to an army outpost. Their mother had taken them away from the dangerous city, but the children insisted on returning to be with their father, a Free Syrian commander. He’s captured by ISIS, and they are heartbroken. When they finally reach sanctuary in Germany—an iffy proposition, at best—young Farah still runs to shelter when a helicopter flies overhead. The detailed portrayal of this close-knit family brings the nightly news home in a way generalizations and statistics never can. Makes you realize “home” is a complex concept too.
  • The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (41 minutes*), is the story of the unarmed and neutral civilians who respond to every bombing attack in search of victims. Last year, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Interviews with three of them working in Aleppo (a construction worker, a blacksmith, and a tailor in their former lives) show how they have responded with almost unimaginable compassion to the equally unimaginable destruction of their homeland. The white helmets they wear offer no magic protection from collapsing buildings or new bombings and, in fact, at times make them targets. At the last minute, cinematographer Khalid Khatib, a white helmet worker himself, was denied entry to the United States and, therefore, attendance at the Oscar ceremony. A sign of the strength of the film is that I found a Russian website debunking the White Helmets’ work.

These films were all fantastic and about compelling individuals, but my pick for Best Use of the Documentary Form was The White Helmets. Best Raiser of Blood Pressure: 4.1 Miles. Sentimental Favorite: Joe’s Violin.

*I don’t understand the Academy’s rules well enough to know why this nominee wasn’t disqualified for violating the length requirement.

Indie Documentaries: Valiant Struggles

N.J. Governor Christie

NJ Gov. Chris Christie-sez so right on his jacket (adapted from a Talk Radio News Svc photo, creative commons license)

In the last bill for the Trenton (N.J.) Film Festival 2016 were three short documentaries under the heading Made in By.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Trenton’s Film Festival offers 55 films from 16 countries in multiple categories—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. The final three from Sunday night were:

  • Two Years – a film by Lauren Hall (11 minutes), which had to be a sentimental favorite here in New Jersey, because it showed the ongoing struggle of Jersey Shore residents to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. They are thwarted by a FEMA bureaucracy that keeps changing eligibility rules for assistance and a governor who says all the right things, but provides little help, focused as he has been on his own now-failed presidential bid. Of the 45,000 or so homes lost in the storm, fewer than 400 had been rebuilt two years later! It is now 3.5 years after the storm, and two shore residents who appeared in the film attended the screening and spoke afterwards. One is finally back in her home, the other is not.
  • PACT: A Day in the Life – by John Bynum, 14 minutes – a film whose cinematic shortcomings are easily overcome by the importance of the problem it highlights: the plight of people with chronic mental conditions in a housing-health-welfare system geared to short-term problems and remedies. The film follows one Trenton, N.J., Catholic Charities support team on its daily rounds, providing ample evidence these people are candidates for sainthood.
  • Made in BY – a 52-minute Italian film (trailer), directed by Luigi Milardi, in its U.S. premiere. The film documents the state of the creative arts in Belarus—Europe’s last dictatorship—through interviews with (mostly young) people from theater, art, music, journalism, and so on. The predominant impression is one of uncertainty—will a particular work be censored, will it land its participants in prison, or not? That creativity can thrive under such difficult circumstances is a profound testament to the human spirit.

The organizers of the Trenton Film Festival deserve a big round of applause for mounting such an ambitious and thought-provoking five-day program!

Get Ready for Oscar: Short Films Rundown

Academy Award, Oscar

(photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license)

Yesterday, I saw the AA-nominated short films in the Animation and Live Action categories. Academy rules define a short as any film under an hour, and some were only a few minutes. Overall, they were not the downers this year’s documentaries were (blurbed here). Links take you to the films or at least to trailers, for a taste of the tremendous diversity involved.

I don’t know enough about the animated category to discriminate, and the techniques are vastly different across films. Here are the nominees:

  • Sanjay’s Super Team – a young boy’s fantasy reconciles his love of superheroes and his father’s traditional Hindu gods. Beautifully rendered and quite sweet in its message. (7 minutes, from Pixar and Disney, directed by Sanjay Patel)
  • World of Tomorrow – the most graphically abstract, with what seemed like a lot of interesting points, but so fast-moving I couldn’t absorb them all. Funny in places, but ultimately disturbing. (17 minutes, United States, by Don Hertzfeldt)
  • Bear Story – already the winner of many awards, hyper-detailed graphics portray a bear who has created a complex hurdy-gurdy that shows a story paralleling the creator’s own yearning to regain his family. Richly visual; this one seems the likely winner. (11 minutes, Chile, directed by Gabriel Osorio Vargas)
  • We Can’t Live Without Cosmos – cosmonaut training and close friendship prepare two men for outer space. Then things go wrong. Relatively simple graphics and an interesting story. I liked this one best. (16 minutes, Russia, Konstantin Bronzit)
  • Prologue – parents were advised to remove their children for this one (nudity and violence) Wisely. Beautiful pencil drawing technique showed a battle among four sword-wielding warriors. My lingering question was “why?” (6 minutes, British, directed by Richard Williams)

A few additional animated films were shown in this program in some not-quite-nominated category, my favorite of which was from France: The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse.

The Live Action shorts covered a wide range, and each had its fans.

  • Ave Maria – what happens when an Israeli family’s car crashes at the door of a nunnery in the rural West Bank, knocking over and decapitating a statue of the VM. The man wants to use the nuns’ phone to call for a ride, but between the nuns’ vow of silence and the Sabbath prohibition against using anything mechanical, everyone is at odds. The man’s mother has lots to say about the whole situation. The only comedy, this was my favorite. (15 minutes, Palestine, France, Germany, directed by Basil Khalil)
  • Shok (“Friend”) – When war breaks out and their town is occupied by Serbian soldiers, two Albanian schoolboys come to understand how fragile society’s veneer of trust really is. This seems the most likely winner, providing the most complete story. (21 minutes, Kosovo, Jamie Donoughue)
  • Everything Will Be Okay – from the title, as you can guess, everything is definitely not OK. A divorced father picks up his daughter for her regular overnight visit with him, but he has something entirely out of the norm planned. The actor playing the daughter steals the show, as she gradually realizes what’s happening. (30 minutes, Germany, Austria, Patrick Vollrath)
  • Stutterer – a young London man with a severe stutter has a six-month online relationship with a woman that goes amazingly well, until she comes to town and proposes they meet in person. Will he go through with it? Very sweet and a sentimental favorite. (12 minutes, UK, Benjamin Cleary)
  • Day One – A new-on-the-job Afghan-American interpreter for the U.S. military is confronted with a series of horrifying events. I thought the story had a whiff of the predictable about it, though all the acting was top-notch. (25 minutes, United States, Henry Hughes)

If you need to kill some time waiting for results in the short features categories, you might play a little Oscars 2016 Bingo, courtesy of Wired and Brian Raftery. I’ll be on the lookout for B3: “Louis Gossett Jr. pretends to understand whatever it is Lady Gaga is doing up there.”

Run-up to the Oscars: Documentary Short Films

Ebola workers, Liberia

Ebola Workers in Liberia (photo: WHO in PPE, wikimedia)

Again this year, the Trenton Film Society is presenting the three categories of short films nominated for Academy Awards. Thursday night, I saw the documentary shorts, five films culled from 74 entries. Tomorrow I’ll see the animated shorts and live action (fiction) nominees. Many of the documentary shorts have been well received at film festivals in the United States and worldwide. Here’s a quick rundown (the links include trailers):

  • Body Team 12 – this entry from Liberia, directed by David Darg, shows the work of people whose job was to collect the bodies of Ebola victims at the height of the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. Their work, described by Garmai Sumo, the team’s only female member, was heartbreaking, but essential in attempts to protect the health of family members and the community. (13 minutes)
  • Chau, Beyond the Lines – a joint U.S. and Vietnam production, directed by Courtney Marsh, about a teen growing up in a Vietnamese center that cares for children affected by Agent Orange who wants to become an artist and clothing designer. Marsh follows the profoundly disabled Chau into his 20s, when he receives vocational school certificates, gets a job painting pictures for a design firm and supports himself in his own apartment. Uplifting, but he is undoubtedly an outlier in spirit and success. (34 minutes)
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – directed by Sharmen Obaid-Chonoy, this film explores the “honor” killings of Pakistani women, which occur at a rate of more than a thousand per year. 18-year-old Saba fell in love and eloped, but her uncle and father found and shot her and threw her body into a river. Miraculously, Saba survived, scarred, and her father and uncle were jailed. Now, if she only “forgives” them, the court will pardon them. Her lawyer and the police don’t want her to do it, but community pressure and the society’s intransigent views about “respect” are powerful. (40 minutes)
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah –this biopic from British filmmaker and journalist Adam Benzine describes French director Lanzmann’s challenges in creating his massive, nine-and-a-half hour 1985 documentary Shoah. This film includes some footage never seen before, as Lanzmann talks about how he went about trying to describe the Holocaust from the inside. That took a toll. (40 minutes)
  • Last Day of Freedom – a remarkable animated documentary from U.S. directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman: the story of a man’s agonizing experience when he reports suspicion that his younger brother—who has serious PTSD and bouts of homelessness—has committed a terrible crime. Since there is no film of Manny, the accused brother, animation lets him be represented, as a soldier, walking down the street, and was an interesting and effective choice. (32 minutes)

Get Ready for Oscar II – Live Action Shorts

5330266850_a1678cfde1_o_convertedIt’s great that these notable short films are finding more screens to be soon on in movie houses and at home via disc and streaming (via vimeo). Short films are a low-budget way for new directors to show their talent and occasionally lead to bigger and better deals. On Friday, I posted capsule reviews of the five Academy Award nominees for Best Short Documentary, and here’s my take on the five nominees for Best Live Action Shorts—“a diverse and satisfying two-hour program,” says Peter Debruge in Variety. Notably, none of the nominees are from the United States.

  • Aya (Israel and France, trailer) – the longest of the bunch, at 39 minutes, is the comic story of a chance encounter between a young woman waiting at the airport and an arriving passenger. Rotten Tomatoes provides this insightful sentence: “She, charmed Makraioto woven minute before it, is in no hurry to correct him their.” To decode this a bit, the man mistakes her for his assigned driver, and she is in no hurry to correct him there. Directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis.
  • Boogaloo and Graham (UK, trailer) – These are the names of the chickens lively Belfast children Jamesy and Malachy have raised, delighted in their pets and dreaming of running a chicken farm, until changes in the family threaten to shake up the chicken coop. Reportedly, the charming 14-minute movie has received requests from 80 film festivals around the world to show it. Directed by Ronan Blaney and Michael Lennox. My sentimental pick for the Oscar.
  • Butter Lamp (France and China, trailer) – Nomadic Tibetan families pose for an itinerant photographer and his assistant in front of absurd and symbolic backgrounds, with the true background to the scene not revealed until the end. In only 15 minutes, this unconventional and memorable film captures the impact of globalization on Tibetans and the erosion of their traditional culture. Directed by Hu Wei.
  • Parvaneh (Switzerland, trailer) – in this 25-minute film, an Afghan girl living in a Swiss refugee camp encounters bureaucratic difficulties when she tries to send money home to her ailing father. Only an unlikely friend can help. An award-winning student film, Swiss-Iranian Talkhon Hamzavi directed.
  • The Phone Call (UK, trailer) – a shy woman working in a help line call center receives a call from a mystery man that will “change her life forever,” the movie’s promotion says, a “gather ye rosebuds” outcome only modestly hinted at. Featuring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent, who handle the telephone call beautifully and movingly, with Edward Hogg and Prunella Scales. “You’ll wonder how it can do in 20 minutes what some full length features can’t in two hours,” says Casey Cipriani for Indiewire. Directed by Mat Kirkby. Perhaps the more likely Oscar recipient. [And the winner!]
Sally Hawkins, live action short film,The Phone Call

Sally Hawkins in The Phone Call

Get Ready for Oscar! The Documentary Shorts

Oscar, Academy Awards

(photo by Rachel Jackson, Creative Commons license)

Two theaters in our area are showing the Oscar-nominated short films this year, and last night I watched the five documentary short nominees, ranging from 20 to 40 minutes long and in total almost three hours’ worth of powerful—and pretty depressing—filmmaking. The nominees are:

  • Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 – A timelier topic is hard to imagine. It’s the story of a crisis hotline in Canandaigua, New York, which receives some 22,000 calls a month from struggling veterans (trailer). These hotline workers are invisible front-line heroes in the battle against suicide, one that a U.S. veteran, somewhere, loses every 80 minutes. An HBO film by award-winning Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry, it is my pick for the Oscar.[YES!! The Winner]
  • Joanna – a Polish documentary (trailer) by Aneta Kopacz, nominated for innumerable awards. The film tells the story of Joanna Sałyga, who used her diagnosis of terminal cancer to inspire a blog about her daily life, to leave her son something of her after she’s gone. The blog became popular, and perhaps people familiar with it gained more from the snippets of insight in the subtitles than I did. Bottom line: well-intended, but over-long, with a muddled story arc, because it was not chronological, so the viewer cannot tell whether and how her views develop.
  • Our Curse – another Polish film, this one by film student Tomasz Śliwiński and Maciej Slesicki, about how Śliwiński and his wife came to terms with the life-threatening medical condition of their infant son, who must wear a respirator at night to be sure he continues breathing. (He has a rare, lifelong genetic disease called Ondine’s Curse.) Bottom line: At least there’s a tiny story arc, with the parents progressing from anxiety, guilt, and fear to some measure of happiness with their baby, but again, chronological presentation would make more sense to viewers.
  • The Reaper (La Parka), by Nicaraguan filmmaker Gabriel Serra Arguello (not the current horror movie directed by Wen-Han Shih), is based on interviews with Efraín Jiménez García, who has worked in a Mexico City slaughterhouse for a quarter-century. The story, in the filmmaker’s words is about “the way (García) connects with death.” And he does connect with it, killing approximately 500 bulls a day, six days a week, for 25 years. Bottom line: A good argument for vegetarianism
  • White Earth – by J. Christian Jensen (see it here) documents the conditions for workers and their families drawn to North Dakota’s oil boom, as seen through the “unexpected eyes” and differing perspectives of three children and an immigrant mother: The American Dream, c. 2014. In a word: bleak. North Dakota oil fields at night make for some eerie scenery.

Sunday morning: the dramatic shorts!

Academy Awards Preview – Live Action Shorts

Oscar, Academy AwardsGetting ready for Oscar, the Trenton Film Society continued its “shorts weekend” yesterday with the live action shorts (see 3-1-14 post for the documentary shorts). Again, there were five nominees—all  foreign.  Between films were excerpts of interviews with a number of directors, including Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Sean and Andrea Nix Fine who grabbed the documentary Oscar last year for Inocente and Shawn Christensen who won the live action prize with Curfew—both of them extraordinary.

In these interviews, a number of producer/directors talked about the constraints of the short film, which are parallel to the challenges of the short story. The author/creator must be economical, focused, and, if the creative process is working well, can say something more piercingly memorable than in a novel or full-length film. They also spoke about how early short films presage the themes and approaches of full-length features later in the creator’s career.

Possibly, the beauty of short films will become more recognized as people become accustomed to consuming media in shorter and shorter formats. (Thank you, YouTube!)

The live action nominees were:

  • Helium (Denmark) – a sweet film, in which a new hospital worker befriends a dying child and helps him prepare for death by envisioning the imaginary land of “Helium”
  • Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything)(France) – A woman and her children flee her abusive husband—tremendous tension, nicely paced
  • Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I have to Take Care of Everything?)(Finland)—Hilarious doings as a couple and their two young daughters get themselves ready for a wedding—the shortest, at 13 minutes
  • The Voorman Problem (U.K.)—starring Martin Freeman (Dr. John Watson in Sherlock) as a prison psychiatric consultant who confronts an inmate prisoner who believes he is a god, possibly God. Based on a bit of David Mitchell’s interesting novel No. 9 Dream (though I didn’t remember this bit)
  • Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)(Spain)—Spanish aid workers encounter xxx child soldiers, and it isn’t pretty.

Watch them online or through Netflix and know what Ellen DeGeneris is talking about tonight!


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Hot Ticket

Ra Paulette, Academy Award, documentary, Cave DiggerImpossible to view and practically ignored a few years ago, the Oscar-nominated short films have become one of the hottest tickets around. Last night I saw the documentary shorts and later today will see the live action shorts. These viewings are courtesy of the Trenton Film Society, which shows the films at the intimate Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton. (The festival also offers the nominees in the animation category.)

In recent years the short films have become available through Netflix and other resources, but I like the Big Screen—well, the Bigger Screen—at the Playhouse.

Only one overworked word describes the five documentary shorts: Awesome.

  • A 109-year-old Holocaust survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer (obituary, 2/27/14), who played the piano in Theresienstadt and was still playing at the time of filming, who says, “I love people” (The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life).
  • A gay man, nearly beaten to death as a teenager, becomes acquainted with the former skinhead who was one of his attackers (Facing Fear)
  • The Yemeni protests that turned violent and led to the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seen through the eyes of youthful cameramen (Karama Has No Walls)
  • Unlikely artist, Ra Paulette, working alone and by hand carves magical caves out of soft New Mexico sandstone (Cave Digger)
  • The last days and death of convicted murderer Jack Hall in the loving care of inmate volunteers in an Iowa prison hospice (Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall)

Real people doing amazing things. Truly awesome.


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