THE OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: The Most Unappreciated Annual Movie Event

The Academy Awards are a hot topic right now leading up to Sunday, but very few talk about…THE SHORTS!!! Most people don’t know that the nominated Live Action (good), Animated (better), and Documentary (best) short films are currently playing in movie theaters near many of you (if not, they’re also online and on demand, but everyone who CAN see these in theaters should do so; they deserve the big screen treatment). Since it’s really the most unappreciated and flat out best annual movie event (FAAAAR more enjoyable than the actual Oscars ceremony), I decided to write a bit about this year’s entries:

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All five of this year’s Oscar nominated live action short films depict different types of outsiders: 

The most obvious ones being those that are also the most relevant to current events, unfortunately; Enemies Within and Silent Nights – my favorite of the bunch  both concern the plights of immigrants in France and Denmark, respectively. The former – whose appealing spy thriller aesthetic cannot overcome the overstretched narrative – chronicles how governmental hostility towards naturalized citizens – people who have always led productive lives positively contributing to their societies – can ultimately transform these largely innocent immigrants into outsiders both in their adopted nations and to their homelands.

Silent Nights also delves into this outsider dissonance between an immigrant’s commitment to their families waiting for them back at home and their dedication to their new digs. Yet unlike the relatively one-note Enemies Within (as the on-the-nose title attest to), Silent Nights develops a potent relationship between an immigrant and a native whose dimensions deserve to be thoroughly explored in a full length feature. The immigrant falls in love with a legal citizen who nonetheless still feels like an outsider to the conditions of her own life, and their love affair highlights the hopeful possibilities and defeatist impossibilities of integration across cultures for relationships that cannot escape their societies’ innate legal hierarchies. 

Integration is also on the mind of Sing, memorable for a satisfying punchline that nevertheless takes needlessly long to build to. The lead girl joins a prestigious choir program whose teacher – obsessed with retaining their top notch reputation in singing contests – asks the less vocally skilled children simply to mouth the words so as to not ruin the gorgeous harmonies of the rest. This new student – already an outsider – becomes even more of one after this incident, yet she’s ultimately brought into the fold by one of the stronger songbirds standing up for her friend, thereby revealing how many other outsiders their merciless leader ostracized by making them lip sync. Instead of adhering to the professor’s  wishes of ignoring the outsiders in the troupe in the name of their overall success, the team ultimately disregards her by banding together, which conveys the message that insiders must always go out of their way to include outsiders, even if doing so will prevent them from achieving their goals. In terms of immigrants, this lesson connects to the notion in Silent Nights that though the man may have put the woman through the ringer, she indescribably benefited from their cultural exchange regardless of the less than ideal outcome. 

A less-than-ideal outcome also describes La Femme et Le TVG, a charming, quaint story of train star-crossed admirers whose lives change simply by passing each other by. Once again, the main character is a societal outsider, an older woman who lives on the edge of town in which she plays the “friendly” neighborhood Scrooge. After years of isolation away from her friends and family, she’s basically given up on rediscovering the joy of life, instead leading a rather monotonous, soulless existence. The highlight of her day is waving to unseen passengers in a train zooming by her cottage, as she imagines their extraordinary lives in comparison to hers. When one of these train-ers spots the gal and strikes up a pen pal correspondence with her, a late-life romance appears to bud, but they ultimately play very little direct roles in each other’s lives. Yet by finding friendship in a hopeless place – particularly due to her willingness to pursue that relationship, proving to herself it’s never TOO late for anyone – the lady is granted a new lease on life by finally being able to once again see the profundity in her monotony. Though the story somewhat comments on how technological innovations can leave behind those already so forgotten that no one would even think to consider how such advancements may affect them (I mean, who would ever worry about how maximizing the speed of a train – thus changing its path – would take away the most important moments of a woman’s day?), the resolution seems to imply that though such progress may initially seem to cause harm, people will eventually adapt and thus progress with the times. Unintentionally, even the smallest of existential alterations can turn an outsider into more of an insider, as long as they continue to make it to that window to wave at the train of life continually passing by.

Such small gestures profoundly affect the dichotomous intimacy – both in terms of proximity and emotion – of the two main characters in Timecode, by far the funniest and quirkiest short. While working one of the most quintessentially outsider jobs – security guards on the night shift – they at first stumble upon and then cultivate some solace in this outsider monotony by wordlessly sharing a repressed, private passion, in the process creating a social ecosystem for themselves in which they can be insiders with each other. Once again, a combination of human pursuit and dumb luck based on their everyday, individually particularly, yet still shared habitual behavior ended up saving their lives. 

The importance of cameras to their newfound alchemy in Timecode made me think about how much all of these short films can allow outsiders in the audience to feel like insiders. Given the fact that each of them came from foreign countries, the filmmakers in a way were sharing – through their cameras – unusual corners of their cultures in hopes of being recognized by the rest of the world, both by audiences and by the Academy Awards. In turn, these audiences – outsiders to the films’ foreign societies and some even to their own – may feel a bit more like insiders thanks to identifying certain parts of themselves on the screen that they believed were distancing oddities. By celebrating these technically foreign but still universal lives through their nominations and subsequent screenings, the Academy exposes them to the rest of the world, thereby allowing many to feel a little less alone in these dark times. Everyone from immigrants to vocally-challenged children are often on the outside looking in, yet thanks to these cameras looking in on their stories, the world becomes a bit more inclusive. 

Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films, ranked:

  1. Silent Nights
  2. Timecode
  3. La Femme et le TVG
  4. Sing
  5. Enemies Within

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If the live action Shorts are about outsiders, then their animated counterparts all concern the concept of time in different ways. Most explicitly, Borrowed Time presents a guy basically living in the past, yet the tragedy he can’t get past also makes him appreciate the finiteness of his own time on Earth. Similarly, Pearl Cider and Cigarettes feels like a highly personal rumination on how to encapsulate a person’s time on Earth. Pearl also has memorialization on the mind, yet focuses more on how our interactions with generic objects and places – in this case, a car – can ultimately come to represent the time of our lives, both literally and figuratively. More abstractly, Blind Vaysha allegorical tackles how recollections of the past and expectations for the future inform our conception of the present. Finally, Pixar’s Piper – which screened before Finding Dory – chronicles the type of evolutionary sequences that unavoidably force us to progressively mature as time inevitably passes. 

These are some of 2016’s truest distillations of pure cinematic storytelling, and a real ode to the empathetic capacities of the seemingly endless varieties of modern day animation. This annual release always feels like a showcase of this truth, yet also an implicit indictment of the monotonously animated full length features that populate cinemas every year. To the Academy’s credit, they often nominate the more creative yet vastly less popular work (this year, more than half of the nominees – Kubo and the Two Strings, The Red Turtle, and My Life as a Zucchini – fall in this category), but these gestures of civic duty fail to stop the industry from persistently treating children – the undeniably intended if not sole audience for such fare – like ADD-ravaged savages incapable of following a story unless new stimuli are incessantly, perpetually, and distractingly thrown at them every few seconds (this may be a generalization, but I also just suffered through Trolls and Sing (which coincidentally bears the same name as one of the nominated live action shorts above) in the last week). Relatedly, their animation all looks too similar, basically like slight mutations of the mold established by Toy Story so long ago. Though Pixar usually – but by no means always nowadays – transcends the aforementioned childishly condescending approach, they’re perhaps most to blame for the industry’s largely static animation style, especially since they’ve long been at the forefront of the form. After watching these inventively designed shorts, I’m now wondering if some of Pixar’s recent outings have felt a bit tired and even soulless because the creative juices of this particular Toy Story-esque style have been exhausted. If you’re a believer that form and content are inextricably linked, then changing the means of expression of these animated flicks will inherently change – and thus freshen – what they’re expressing.

Expecting Pixar to jump right to adopting more of an experimental style in their next feature length flick is highly unrealistic – the tepid critical responses to their recent releases have not diminished their box office receipts; as such, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ definitely applies commercially here – but why can’t they experiment with different styles in their now-customary pre-movie shorts, which couldn’t affect their bottom line? For the second year in a row, Pixar embarrassingly has the worst nominated shorts entry, and believing their prestigious platform may be vaulting unworthy contenders to nominations would be justified. Piper‘s animation may be the most gorgeous (because, you know, $$$$$), but the story has been seen a gazillion times before, all leading to a rote moral tritely told. Would kids really be turned off by the likes of Pearl, undeniably the highlight not only of this batch but also one of the high points of the entire year in moviemaking? Sure, it’s a tad more emotionally mature – without broaching inappropriate subjects – than their usual fare, but so was Inside Out, and Up (that montage?!), and Toy Story 3, and Wall-E, and really parts of all their movies.  A major factor contributing to the emotional effectiveness of Pearl is the distinct animation; it is an inextricable part of the story. If Pixar took a page out of their fellow nominees’ books, they have the potential to once again forever alter the genesis of cinematic animation for all time. 

Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films, ranked: 

  1. Pearl: Some of the best filmmaking of 2016, period. Addendum: the central concept of  the short – that entire lives can be lived in a car – will resonate with my fellow Springsteenaholics. 
  2. Borrowed Time: Has a bit too conventional of an animation style, but the precise framing and compositions of the cinematography excavates all of the emotions out of this brutal story.
  3. Pearl Cider and Cigarettes: Style over substance, but my oh my that style. Basically a film noir comic book, like an animated version of Frank Miller’s Sin City.
  4. Blind Vaysha: Not the most dramatically engaging (exclusive voiceover storytelling rarely is), but it’s intellectually stimulating, and the dynamic animation is REALLY stimulating.
  5. Piper: So otherworldly-it’s-of-this-world animation, unfortunately in service of triteness.

Since the animated shorts are relatively shorter than the others, additional submissions that ended up not being nominated are also screened. Including these, here are the ones that should’ve been nominated, ranked: 

  1. Pearl
  2. Borrowed Time
  3. Pearl Cider and Cigarettes
  4. The Head Vanishes: A bit too intentionally scatterbrained, but a breathtaking existential allegory for dementia/Alzheimer’s 
  5. Once Upon a Line: Simple but oh so effective animation, particularly the inspired use of colors. 

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Unlike their animated counterparts, these documentary shorts rarely deviate from the conventional formalism of the genre. Not to take anything away from them, but after the three hours it took to watch them all, honestly the last thing I want to do right now is delve deeper into these tragic lives – like I did with the other nominated fare above – after spending so much time with them (usually too much; these would’ve benefitted from some small nips and tucks, almost evidenced by the fact that they were the only collection of 5 nominated films too lengthy to fit in one “program”). The lightest one literally concerns a Holocaust survivor (that’s not a joke), and program B – ‘a Syria double feature,’ if you will – is perhaps the most harrowingly devastating under-90 minute moviegoing experience of the year. Even so, none of this should convince you NOT to watch all of these; they’re the most consistently high quality of all the nominated shorts subgenres, and their stories are by far the most essential to be recorded, experienced, and shared. Documentary filmmaking is probably the strongest counterargument to the notion that artists live in elitist bubbles; these five records of lives will expand your mind regarding the existences of others both in your own country and around the globe. 

Though I personally preferred Extremis – a fly on the wall view of various families wrestling with the euthanasia question regarding their loved ones in a hospital ICU (what a joyful moviegoing experience!) – my vote (if I was lucky enough to be an Academy voter) would still go to Watani: My Homeland. I don’t want to step on the toes of my forthcoming, all-encompassing Oscar piece that delves into this subject, but the Academy Awards are a great lens through which to examine the difference between “favorite” and “best.” The former is based much more on one’s own subjective opinions, while the latter should come with as much objectivity as possible. A voter’s taste will obviously play a factor in their decision, but the Oscars should be recognized as more than just a collection of the tastes of the Academy’s members. Movie studios so strive for Oscars somewhat for the prestige, but also because they know that a far greater number of people will see their work – both now and in the future – if it comes with the seal of approval associated with an Oscar. As such, when deciding where to place their votes, Academy members should focus less on their personally preferred options and more on which choice best reflects – in this case – 2016. Extremis may be my favorite short documentary of the year, but given the pressingly urgent subject matter, Watani: My Homeland deserves to be considered the best short documentary of 2016, one that reflects the year that was (sadly) and thus should be seen by the most amount of people. If Extremis was vastly superior to Watani: My Homeland, then it would receive my vote. But since they’re both worthy nominees, “best” should trump “favorite” here. If more voters adopted this perspective, the history of the Academy Awards would not be as littered with appalling winners. Luckily, all of these documentary shorts would be satisfactory victors (albeit some not AS satisfactory as others), yet another testament to the quality of this year’s nominees.

Oscar Nominated Documentary Short Films, ranked: 

  1. Extremis
  2. Watani: My Homeland
  3. The White Helmets
  4. 4.1 Miles
  5. Joe’s Violin

 

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