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Short Stuff: The 2014 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts
by Jay Seaver

Does it ever cross your mind while watching the Oscars, right about the time that the nominees for the short films are rattled off, just how strange it is that the supposed five best movies under forty minutes come from a wide tame of countries, cultures, and languages, while the supposed five to ten best movies that run more than an hour are all English-language pictures from the United States or the United Kingdom. Why, there's a special category so that films from other countries can get some notice!

Obviously, that's not actually the case, but it does tend to highlight how the Academy Awards sometimes have a hard time with being both Hollywood's industry awards and am attempt to recognize merit among all movies. It's in these down-ballot awards - the foreign films, documentaries, and shorts - where excellence gets a better chance to make it in over familiarity.

Consider "Parvaneh", a Swiss film starting Nissa Kashani as the title character, an Afghan immigrant who leaves the facility where she is s staying for the first time s do that she cans send money home to her family via Western Union. It's not as simple as that, of course, a an be she wins up needing local girl Emelly (Cheryl Graf) to help. There's nothing particularly hard to grasp about it, but even expanded to feature length, it's not exactly going to show up at the multiplexes alongside the nominees in the higher-profile categories.

That's our loss; it's an admirably focused little film. Writer/director Talkhom Hamzavi builds a story out of an easily-grasped problem without talking on it, and it allows us to compare the two girls' situations without judging Emelly too harshly for acting more snippy with less reason. Both Kashani and Graf do impressive, natural work; without over-burdening is with specific background, they give us a sense of who these people are and help Hamzavi turn what starts out as a look at how immigrants are often made to feel like outcasts into one of Parvaneh making her first Swiss friend.

I wouldn't be surprised if many viewers spend "Butter Lamp" wondering if maybe Wei Hu's entry is misplaced, and should be in the documentary category. Even after the last shot, which is obviously planned and delivers a punch that gives the film a twist that is inherently narrative, I wouldn't be totally surprised if much of what we see - specifically, the Tibetan families that an itinerant photographer takes pictures of in front of various backgrounds - was in fact real, or at least recruited on-site and set loose with minimal scripting.

It makes for an interesting experience, at least, especially when seen among a group of other shorts that are telling carefully-plotted stories with beginnings, middles, and ends: Rather than trying to figure out what's going to happen, the audience is observing this group, wondering about these financially-challenged people getting their pictures taken in front of more glamorous backgrounds. We do get to know the various characters as individuals, and that certainly speaks to how well Hu builds his film. It's a soft-spoken culture clash of earthy farmers dreaming of joining a world that has set itself up as an ideal but which doesn't want them, until finally...

Well, you can probably guess. But even if you can, it's a final shot that makes its point as quietly as the rest of the film without seeming too self-satisfied, which would be an easy trap to fall into.

If "Butter Lamp" was at the esoteric end of what a short film can be, "The Phone Call" is much closer to the mainstream: A story with recognizable actors and very defined structure: Sally Hawkins plays a responder at a crisis hotline who takes a voice from an army veteran (Jim Broadbent) who says he has decided to end it all and doesn't want talking-down so much as company.

If you're seeing all the shorts in the various categories in a quick burst, it's hard not to think of the documentary section's "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1", especially upon looking at the far less well-appointed and connected space where Heather volunteers. Still, it's a setting that serves this story, heightening both characters' loneliness and the happiness that seems out of their grasp. It also eliminates any distractions from just watching and listening to Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent (almost entirely a voice on the phone) as they play out their story of a woman who wants to help and a man who has decided that he is beyond that. Director and co-writer Mat Kirkby, though mostly a music video guy until now, avoids most obvious flourishes but manages to keep the atmosphere from feeling too suffocating despite mostly being rooted to one desk in one place; it's a short that feels very much alive despite potentially being locked down.

"Aya" also spends a fair amount of time at one or two locations, although one of them is a moving automobile. They get there when Aya (Sarah Adler), at the airport to pick up one passenger, winds up holding the sign meant for "Mr. Overby" (Ulrich Thomsen) when his driver goes to sort out a parking problem, and plays along with his misconception that she's waiting for him after his plane arrives.

It's an amusing little premise, and both Adler and Thomsen do a nice job of presenting somewhat inhibited characters who just might be able to connect even in the not-quite-short window of time they have to drive to his hotel. Adler is especially impressive, doing something kind of crazy but making Aya so tentative that she never seems particularly worrisome. Directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis (and their co-writer Tom Shoval) do a lovely job of pacing things as well; it's a fine line between "get on with it" and "no way this happens so quickly" that they negotiate very well indeed. Their crew also deserves some applause as well - there are a lot of shots of the characters talking and driving that would seem impossible to get on a short Israeli film's budget, but the illusion is never broken despite things not getting too flashy.

"Boogaloo and Graham" makes a nice change of pace from the somber piece that preceded it in the package; it's a story of two kids in 1978 Belfast who are given baby chicks by their returning father (Martin McCann) and, contrary to expectations, latch onto them far more completely than their mother (Charlene McKenna) expects or really wants - it's hard enough putting food on the table without avoiding the chickens who are growing up nice and fat!

It's a cute piece, thanks in large part to Riley Hamilton and Aaron Lynch, the young actors playing brothers Jamesy and Malachy. They're a brash and charming pair, and do a great job of bringing for the sort of brothers who probably spend most of their time poking at each other but also present a united front that no outsider or even parent can hope to break. McKenna & McCann are along the same lines, the practical mother exasperated by the romantically-inclined father, although there's no doubt of how true their love is, either. The four are familiar Irish archetypes, to be sure, and placed in a well-realized Belfast that is an equally iconic film setting (it's the middle of the Troubles but most of the families are just scraping by, no matter their sympathies). Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, though, and director Michael Lennox adds energy to a piece that could have been by the numbers.

The slate this year is rather good all-around, and I suspect that it will be one of the two movies that are able to grab attention in very different ways - "Butter Lamp" for its anti-narrative oddity or "The Phone Call" with its well-respected cast - that will come home with the award. None would be disappointing, though (I'm especially fond of "Parvaneh"), and all five nominees make for an impressive two hours.

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originally posted: 02/22/15 06:56:50
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