All you have to do to know there’s something rotten in the state of the world is look at this year’s slate of Oscar-nominated short films. Endangered children, old age and regret, racism, irresponsible parenting, and random homicide all figure in the five live-action shorts nominated for a 2019 Academy Award. The companion program of animated short films is not all that more upbeat, touching on themes of dysfunctional psychiatry, dementia, divorce, and death, among other things.
Call it a sign of these dire times, but grim seems to be the pervading tone among this year’s crop of fledgling filmmakers singled out by Academy voters.
As in recent years past, once the Academy nominations are announced, the contending short films are packaged for theatrical release. There are two separate programs (with two separate admissions), one for the five live-action shorts, and one for the five animated shorts (with a couple of bonus films thrown in to stretch out the animated program to feature-length).
But unlike years past, there’s only one overt comedy in all 10 nominated shorts, the animated psychiatry satire Animal Behavior. Funny animals (including a timid leech and an ape with anger-management issues) attempt to sort out their problems with an avuncular, bespectacled dog therapist in this cheeky effort by Alison Snowden and David Fine. The gag wears a little thin, but crisp dialogue keeps it amusing.
In the live-action program, Marguerite, by French filmmaker Marianne Farley, is a beautifully acted tale of the bond between an elderly woman and the younger woman who is her visiting caregiver. It’s an oasis of tenderness and compassion amid a bunch of films devoted to violence and perversity.
The program begins with Vincent Lambe’s harrowing Detainment. Written largely from police transcripts, this true story follows the events that led two 10-year-old Liverpool schoolboys to become the youngest defendants ever convicted of murder in the UK. Marvelously well-acted (especially by its young stars) and discreet about how much of the crime it chooses to show onscreen, it nevertheless drags viewers along in an atmosphere of non-stop dread.
This is followed immediately by Jeremy Comte’s Fauve, another tale of two boys (French Canadian, this time) running amok out in the countryside that comes to an abrupt and horrifying conclusion. (After that double-whammy, distressed viewers might be forgiven for going out for popcorn and never coming back.) Films are presented alphabetically, and yet it’s questionable to lead off this program with two films so similar in their bleak nihilism.
Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Madre is a taut mini-thriller about a woman grappling with a cell phone call from her 6-year-old son in jeopardy. The filmmaking is crisp and intense, but Sorogoyen has no exit strategy; the story just stops. And the final live-action entry, Skin—set in America’s pick-up-driving, shotgun-toting yahoo country—explores deeply ingrained racism and its consequences in a manner better suited to The Twilight Zone.
The animation program is more user-friendly. Louise Bagnall’s lyrical, emotionally stirring Irish entry Late Afternoon, beautifully rendered in fluid pastel watercolors, features an older woman diving deep into the well of memory to piece together fragments of a life she’s forgotten. One Small Step, from Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas, charms with its tale of a plucky Asian girl in San Francisco and her cobbler single dad who does everything he can to support her dream of becoming an astronaut.
The annual Pixar/Disney entry, Bao, by Domee Shi, is a metaphorical fable about a a Chinese woman who forms a maternal attachment to a dumpling. And Trevor Jimenez’s Weekends is an artfully constructed tale of a young boy shuttled back and forth between his divorced parents during a year of changes.
There are many lovely and intriguing moments in both programs— especially the animated offerings—but there’s not one E-Ticket item here that just grabs you by the lapels and leaves you awestruck. Maybe next year.
OSCAR-NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: LIVE-ACTION (Not rated) 109 minutes. (**) ANIMATION (Not rated) 80 minutes. (***)