One take away from the live action Oscar shorts this year is that they’re not really that short these days. Only one film comes in under the twenty minute mark. While a few of these films could have really done more with less, overall, it’s a year of strong contenders covering a broad range of topics. It’s also interesting to note that while the United States dominated this year’s animated shorts category, America was shut out of the live action.
Kristóf Deák (director)
Zsofi (Dóra Gáspárvalvi) is starting at a new school and is excited to join the highly lauded and competitive choir. Liza (Dorka Hais), resident popular girl and choir star, befriends Zsofi and discovers that the choir isn’t as egalitarian as she thought. The kids are good, and although Liza is incredibly earnest, the child actors never come off as sickly sweet. The best part of this film is its feeling of sheer catharsis at seeing how the children outwit their malevolent choral teacher. The worst part is its length. This would have been a much tighter story with about five to seven minutes cut out.
“Silent Nights” (30 minutes)
Aske Bang (director)
Aske Bang, a television actor in Denmark, has directed two previous shorts before getting the Academy’s attention with “Silent Nights,” a rather confused film that belies his experience. The story follows Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen), a Salvation Army volunteer and beleaguered adult daughter, and Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah), a homeless Ghanaian man with a wife and children back at home. Of course, they fall in love. This film seems well-meaning, but it manages to make a lot of predictable blunders, chiefly making Inger such a saintly, benevolent white savior that it’s hard to take her seriously as a character. Bang certainly wants the audience to take this story as a “good people in hard times have shades of grey” tale, but everything is just kind of racist instead, from Kwame’s money-obsessed wife to Inger’s final disbelief in assimilation at the end. Her penultimate angelic act is to shove money at him to leave the country and return to Ghana; her final one is to carry the child he doesn’t know about to term, I guess. “Silent Nights” is badly paced and frankly just not enjoyable to watch. It’s absolutely the weakest entry of the bunch.
Juanjo Giménez Peña (director)
The winner of the Palme d’Or, “Timecode” follows the two security guards at a garage. Luna (Lali Ayguadé) and Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) each work twelve-hour shifts and only see each other briefly at the shift change. I don’t want to spoil this one, but they start to leave messages for one another in timecodes left on Post-Its. The visuals of “Timecode” are fascinating, and the actors do a lot of kinetic bodywork, elevating a simple premise into a beautiful art. It’s simple and clever and ends with a really great punchline, and I think it’s well worth the time to check out.
Sélim Azzazi (director)
Set in France in 1996, “Ennemis Interieurs” (Enemies Within) depicts the long interview-turned-interrogation of a middle-aged French-Algerian born man (Hassam Ghancy) by a younger French bureaucrat (Najib Oudghiri). There’s a specific historical backdrop to this film–the fear of terror attacks in the wake of the Algerian Civil War–but the film does nothing to contextualize this for the viewer. This isn’t a criticism, however; the anonymity of the office where most of the short is set is an asset. There’s a concrete place and time that this interrogation occurs, but it could also be now, be anywhere really. This short also plays with the concept of assimilation (so ham-fistedly explored in “Silent Nights”) by pitting two characters of Algerian background against each other. Is survival dependent on shedding your cultural roots? The two leads are tremendous and never overplay the situation, the dialogue is sharp, and the whole film is both chilling and extraordinarily rooted in the politics of the now.
“La Femme et la TGV” (30 minutes)
Timo von Gunten (director)
The obligatory star vehicle that makes it’s way to the shorts category every year, “The Woman and the TGV” stars Jane Birkin as a Elise, a woman who waves a Swiss flag out her window at a high-speed train every day. She’s a mish-mash of quirks; she owns a bird whose cage sits at the back of her bike as she rides into town every day to open her bakery. She distrusts local teens. We see flashes of her physical frailty every so often, with halting steps or shaking hands, but generally she seems quite capable of independent living despite what her adult son thinks. She begins a correspondence with Bruno, a man on the TGV who has noticed and appreciated her flag waving, and begins to maybe find a new meaning for her life beyond her shabby bakery. While this sounds rather cloying, Birkin really manages to infuse Elise with a palpable longing, and the story never gets too cute or clever.