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2016 Oscar-Nominated Shorts Subject: A Viewers Guide
by Peter Sobczynski

A look at the programs of films nominated for the year's Animated, Live-Action and Documentary Short Subject Oscars.

As has been the case for the last few years, Magnolia Pictures and Shorts TV has put together a series of programs compiling all the titles nominated for Oscars in the Live-Action, Animated and Documentary Short Film categories that will begin playing in select theaters this weekend and which will turn up on various streaming services in a couple of weeks. Whether you are looking to enjoy a form of cinematic art that doesn’t often get a lot of commercial play these days or are simply trying to get a leg up on your fellow competitors in your office Oscar pool, each one of these programs contains a collection of titles that should appeal to a wide spread of moviegoers. Below, I give you a quick overview of the various programs along with a mention of my favorite in each one--not necessarily the one I think will win the big prize on Oscar night.

The Animated category, for example, is largely concerned with characters trying to connect with their respective pasts, albeit through a variety of genres. ''Blind Vaysha'' is a strikingly designed work featuring narration by Caroline Dhavernas that tells the story of a girl who is ostensibly born blind but who actually possesses a left eye that only sees the past and a right eye that only sees the future. ''Borrowed Time'' is a Western-themed short about a haunted man returning to the place where a long-ago error in judgement cost him the life of his lawman father. ''Pear Cider and Cigarettes'' is a long and decidedly adult story (it will be playing at the end of the program preceded by a warning for families that might want to leave early) about a young man reminiscing about his lifelong friendship with a self-destructive pal as he heads off to China to try to save him one last time. ''Pearl'' is a charming music--driven tale about a young woman looking back at her life on the road with her father while preparing for the road ahead in her own life that feels a bit like ''Boyhood'' boiled down to five minutes. Finally, there is ''Piper.'' the adorable Pixar cartoon that played before ''Finding Dory'' about a baby sandpiper gradually learning to feed itself and conquer its fear of the rolling ocean waves. Though I have a lot of affection for ''Pearl,'' I have to admit that of the five nominees, ''Piper'' is still my favorite for the way that it expertly combines technical prowess with a funny, touching and undeniably compelling story in an immensely satisfying manner despite the short running time.

In the Live-Action category, ''Enemies Within'' tells an all-too-timely tale, despite being set in 1998, about an Algerian ex-convict who has lived in France most of his life and whose attempt to gain citizenship puts him in front of a government caseworker for an interview that grows increasing tense as it gradually shifts into full interrogation mode. ''La Femme et le TGV'' is a slight story about a lonely widow (the divine Jane Birkin) who strikes up a friendship of sorts with the engineer of the train that passes by her home every day. Another topical tale, ''Silent Nights'' tells the story of a homeless Ghana refugee in Denmark who becomes involved with a local woman who works at the shelter where he crashes from time to time. The final two shorts should prove to be the most crowd-pleasing of the bunch. In ''Sing,'' a Hungarian girl joins her new school’s celebrated choir only to discover that the director only wants her to mime her singing, an order that first disappoints her but eventually leads to a triumphant conclusion. Finally, ''Timecode'' presents viewers with a pair of security guards who alternate shifts at a parking garage that is the very definition of monotony until one accidentally discovers that the other uses the downtime to practice their sweet dance moves. Of these, my preference is for ''Enemies Within,'' a film that manages to pack enough of a dramatic punch during its comparatively brief running time than most full-length features that you or I could name.

Because of the length of the films in question, the Documentary program is being broken up into two parts. The first starts off with ''Extremis'' a powerful and undeniably gloomy look at people lying in hospitals on life support and the toll that their suffering takes on both the doctors that try to bring them comfort and the friends and family members who sit helplessly by their sides as they are forced to face certain inevitable questions. ''4.1'' observes the efforts of a Coast Guard captain doing everything in his power to rescue thousands of Turkish refugees stranded on the isle of Lesbos, a narrative that share certain thematic similarities with this year’s Documentary Feature nominee ''Fire at Sea.'' ''Joe’s Violin'' follows the titular musical instrument as it makes its journey, via a donation to the Mr. Holland’s Opus foundation, from the 92-year-old Holocaust survivor who was its original owner to the 12-year-old girl who winds up with it. The second program includes the two most politically charged shorts of the bunch. ''Watani: My Homeland'' observes to story of a family of Syrian refugees who make the decision to attempt to flee to Germany following the difference of their father. Syria also comes to play in ''The White Helmets'' which chronicles the work of a group of brave first responders who are charged with rescuing victims of airstrikes from the rubble that used to be their homes. All five of these films are strong--''Joe’s Violin'' is the only one that flirts with conventionality--but if pressed, I would probably say that ''The White Helmets'' was the best because it is the most immediately gripping of the bunch and it will continue to keep its hold on you long after you have finished watching it.

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originally posted: 02/11/17 07:15:20
last updated: 02/11/17 09:07:23
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