A review of this year’s Oscar selection of Live Action short films.

by Martin Hafer

Each February, I make a pilgrimage to my local theater.  While many folk are going to see what the Best Picture nominees are like, I go to special screenings of the Oscar-nominated short films. You see, I really have much less interest in the ‘big movies’ and am strangely addicted to the shorts. And, this is probably the seventh year in a row I’ve gone to these special showings.

They usually do screenings of the shorts in three installments in my town; the live action, animated and documentary categories.  Many places around the US don’t show every category and you’re most likely to find these films playing in larger markets, so you might have to travel a bit to one of these special showings. And, many of these places only show the first two categories and not the documentary shorts.

Today’s show was the live shorts and the theater was only about half full–which shows you that a lot of folks either don’t know about these special screenings or just don’t care. I love them, however, it seems to me that it is actually a rather weak group of films this year. Now, I must add that my oldest daughter and best friend went with me and they felt the films were a bit better than I did–but they both agree it still isn’t one of the stronger years for live action shorts.

Aya – Grade: B

Aya is a film set in Israel and is a strange sort of story about a woman who is waiting for someone at the airport. Oddly, however, when a man is looking for his driver to take him to a piano competition, she impulsively decides to pretend to be his driver and take him on the long drive from the airport in Tel Aviv to his hotel in Jerusalem. Exactly why she does this isn’t really clear and they set off on this road trip across the country. The story is mildly interesting, though I kept waiting for that moment when everything would make sense or have a pay-off to make the film seem Oscar-worthy.  However, this is not to say the film is bad. I really, really loved the cinematography and still wonder how they were able to film a few of the scenes. In particular, it’s tough to film folk inside a car because there is so little room for a camera. So, they often do tricks like removing mirrors and windshields when you watch these scenes.  And, usually the car is actually being towed, with no one really driving. Yet, at times there are a few shots that reveal that none of these tricks appear to be happening. In fact, if anyone can tell me how they did all this, I would love to know, as in one case the camera is inside the car and then goes outside and around it–all in what looks like one take. Overall, this is a decent film with great camerawork but not much more.

Boogaloo and Graham – Grade: B+

Boogaloo and Graham is the most enjoyable film of the five nominees, as it’s meant to be a comedy. This does not mean it’s necessarily brilliant but it did make me smile…and I noticed a lot of folks in the theater were laughing during the showing. It’s a very slight story despite being set during the occupation of Belfast by British soldiers during the 1970s. In fact, the story itself really has little to do with the problems in Northern Ireland. Instead, it’s a cute tale about a couple of kids who receive a couple of very strange pets…chickens.  The boys quickly grow to love them and their mother is far from pleased when they become attached to these “smelly” birds.  It’s cute but not the sort of film you’d expect to be nominated.

Butter Lamp – Grade: C+

Butter Lamp AKA (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak) is an incredibly simple film. It consists of a variety of Tibetans being photographed in front of an assortment of backgrounds that are obviously not in Tibet. You see families posing in front of such settings as tropical beaches and even Disneyland Hong Kong. And, in the end, when the cameraman and his assistant are leaving, you get a chance to see where the photos are being shot.  During all this, the focus of the film camera is fixed–and never moves once.  Technically speaking, it’s a very simple film and there is nothing to the story other than seeing nomadic people being photographed. Oddly, I heard a few people in the audience laughing hard during this film but I saw very little that appeared funny. It does have some points to make about progress, society and, perhaps, about changes being forced on the Tibetans. But it also left me wondering why the film was nominated, as I keep waiting and waiting for something exciting or innovative to occur…yet nothing seemed to happen.

Parvaneh – Grade: B+

Parvaneh is the film I think is most likely to take home the Oscar.  It’s a very good film and the subject matter seems like the sort of thing that is pure Oscar-bait.  It’s the story of a young Afghani refugee living in Switzerland.  She’s alone and like so many refugees, she’s concerned about sending money home to her poor family. However, when she arrives in the city and tries to wire money, she finds two problems–she must be over 18 and she has no identification. So, she goes in search of someone to help her. Now I assumed as I watched that she would soon be exploited by some uncaring person and I assumed several things would happen which didn’t.  I appreciate how the film is not predictable much of the time. The story is about the connection this Muslim lady makes with a Swiss woman who has her own set of problems. I liked the film but didn’t love it–which is the way I felt about all of the nominees.

The Phone Call – Grade: B+

The Phone Call is set at a crisis hotline center.  Heather begins her shift by receiving a phone call from a man who is depressed and has taken an overdose of antidepressants. She spends most of the film trying to connect with the guy and determine where he is so that she can send help.  Ultimately, it has a super-depressing ending and is not a film for everyone.  While The Phone Call is definitely not a feel-good film, it has some excellent acting by Sally Hawkins as Heather, and her ability to emote and make the most of scenes where she is essentially acting alone are terrific.  Plus, it’s interesting to note that the very talented actor, Jim Broadbent, plays the suicidal man.  You never see him in the film, but his voice is quite recognizable, as he has a ton of terrific films to his credit.

Now, you might get the impression from my article that I really wasn’t particularly happy with any of the nominees.  This is unusual and it’s the first year in many that I left the show feeling so ambivalent.  Perhaps it’s just an off year or perhaps I am just being a bit too hard on these films. Or, maybe it’s because I have seen and reviewed so many short films. I’m hoping that next week’s animated shorts will be more satisfying. I also hope to have my impressions of the animated films for you as well. As always, I’d love to hear from you and find out what you thought of the films.

For a full list of the films or to view them online click here.