Oscar Live Action Shorts Fail to Justify Nominations

118 minutes, Not-rated
* *

One of the biggest chores of sitting through the Oscar marathon broadcast is listening to chat and acceptance speeches related to films you’re unlikely ever to see. Is a local cinema near you playing the five films nominated for Best Picture in the Short Films—Live Action? Probably not. Kudos to Oscar for recent decisions to bundle such films, but you might want to skip the 2015 DVD when it becomes available. This year’s nominees consist of a few “cute” films and quite a bit of tedium. None of the films rise above the level of “competent” filmmaking. Lord knows there’s a lot of incompetence out there, but one expects more of films up for honors.

Parvanah (25 minutes, Swiss, Directed by Talkon Hamzavi & Stefan Eichelberger) tells the tale of an underage and undocumented Afghan girl living alone in Zurich. The simple act of trying to wire money back home without an ID card leads her into an unlikely friendship with a privileged, but troubled Swiss teen. Nice idea and a luminous young woman in the title role, but this is also the most ham-handed filmmaking of the lot. Think filmed political correctness—by the numbers. Think Swiss teenager behaving stupidly–by the numbers.

The Phone Call (21 minutes, UK, Directed by Mat Kirby & James Lucas) is the only film with recognizable names: Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent. That’s about all it has going for it. Hawkins is a crisis center phone volunteer trying to talk a lonely widower out of committing suicide. She’s torn between doing her duty and sinking under her caller’s world-weariness. It’s depressing, but also predictable.

Aya (40 minutes,  Israel, Directed by Oded Binnum & Michael Brezis) is the film I think will win–not because it’s the best in show, but because it’s the most stylish of the lot. Aya’s life takes an improbable turn when a chauffeur service attendant asks her to hold his customer pickup sign until he moves his car. The ride? A handsome, older Danish music competition judge. Aya impulsively decides to pretend she's his driver. Why? Maybe she’s bored with her marriage, maybe she’s starved for intellectual companionship, or maybe just wants to be spontaneous for a change.  The film looks good and it traipses the border between intrigue and creepiness. That said, at 40 minutes it’s too long by half and doesn’t deliver enough wallop for the attention it demands.

My personal favorite was a quirky effort called Butter Lamp (15 minutes, China/France, Directed by Hu Wei & Julien FĂ©ret). It’s just a series of vignettes–literally. Tibetan street photographers shoot family portraits in front of backdrops of places their subjects (or they) will never visit. This droll little film captures touching and funny ‘small’ moments within families whose lives Westerners can only imagine. Nothing much happens, yet we get a sense of life at the top of the world. My favorite moment is of an old woman who won’t stop bowing before an image of the Dali Lama’s Potala Palace.

Another amusing entry is Boogaloo and Graham (14 minutes, UK/Northern Ireland, Directed by Michael Lennox & Ronan Blaney). It’s Belfast, 1978–a time in which British troops patrol the streets, random violence lurks, and curfews keep most people off the street. It’s not an ideal place for two young boys to grow up and it’s pretty hard on mom and dad as well. Life takes an amusing turn amidst The Troubles when the boys come into possession of two chicks–the title characters–and raise them to full chickenhood. But how can you keep chickens or boys behind concrete walls? This film manages to find humor and throw a spanner into our expectations. This is definitely a “cute” film–hardly innovative filmmaking, but a very pleasant diversion.

You’ll notice that all the films are foreign-made. If these are the best the world has to offer, it makes you wonder how many tuition dollars are being squandered at NYU, UCLA, and Hampshire College. This year's short films don't inspire confidence in the upcoming generation of filmmakers.  Rob Weir

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