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Film Review: ‘2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action’

Variety logo Variety 2/25/2017 Peter Debruge
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When it comes to the Oscars, the Academy fiercely defends its definition of movies as a theatrical experience, disqualifying those that debut on home video or VOD from consideration in all the feature categories. For years, the short films were the exception, though in a happy twist, despite the fact that most have been seen exclusively at festivals prior to nominations, they now enjoy a healthy theatrical run after the fact thanks to the efforts of all-shorts-all-the-time network ShortsHD. This year’s live-action offerings are unusually strong across the board, with nary an English-language one among them.

An ambitious idea elegantly compressed into a tight dramatic package, Hungarian director Kristóf Deák’s “Sing” captures the moment when a young person’s faith in the inherent fairness of authority ruptures. A transfer student arrives at a public elementary school, where she is drawn to join the award-winning choir, overseen by the school’s beloved music teacher. However, after the first practice, the teacher pulls her aside and orders her to mime the words at the big competition, telling her she’s just “not good enough” to sing aloud. It’s a devastating lesson for the young girl, who eventually confides her disappointment to a classmate, resulting in a turnaround that makes this an entertaining short for children, without necessarily undermining its allegorical power for adults. In fact, “Sing” achieves in just 25 minutes the same sense of disillusionment as Cristian Mungiu’s austere Cannes-selected “Graduation” (AKA “Bacalaureat”), rendered far more accessible by its strong child performances and surprising end-credits number (traditional Hungarian choral song “Bodzavirág”).

Danish actor-turned-director Aske Bang’s “Silent Nights” tackles an even more complex moral quandary, focusing on two souls — blonde shelter worker Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) and Ghanian refugee Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) — who find comfort in one another over an oppressively cold holiday season in Copenhagen. Bang nurses no illusions that there are easy solutions to Europe’s illegal immigration crisis, and though he’s guilty of recycling a few clichés to make his point (it’s tough not to when working in the short format), the film manages to capture the complexity of his central couple’s respective situations: suffering from a lack of affection in her own life, Inger accepts it a little too readily from a stranger, while Kwame is treated so badly by the locals that he in turn mistreats the one person trying to help. Considering how much ground he can cover in just half an hour, it’s exciting to imagine what Bang might do with a feature.

Questions of immigration and assimilation also form the backbone of “Enemies Within,” which takes place entirely within an interrogation room, where a well-educated and articulate Algerian-born man (Hassam Ghancy) seeking French citizenship is grilled about his association with suspected Muslim terrorists. Inspired by the way French authorities treated writer-director Sélim Azzazi’s own father in the 1990s, the unsettling premise lends itself well to the short-film treatment, devoting its entire running time to a single dramatic incident, rather than trying to compress weeks of action into an overstuffed package. Though somewhat stagy in parts, this unnerving one-act raises thorny questions about how Western nations deal with the arrival of those who don’t necessarily share their ideals, complicated further here by the fact that the agent asking the questions is himself of unspecified Arab decent (Najib Oudghiri).

On the lighter side, Juanjo Giménez Peña’s “Timecode” isn’t so much a traditional story as an unexpected platform for modern dance, in which two parking garage attendants discover a surprising way to fight the boredom of their respective posts. Luna (Lali Ayguadé) and Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) cross paths only as they change shifts, barely speaking to one another, until Luna happens to rewind the previous night’s security footage and discovers the peculiar way her co-worker does his rounds. What follows doesn’t entirely make sense, but is perfectly delightful all the same, as they begin to leave surprises for one another via the video cameras positioned throughout the garage. Though it won Cannes’ top prize last year, a short like this doesn’t necessarily forecast the Spanish director’s ability to handle features, though it should earn him plenty of commercial and music video work.

Swiss director Timo von Gunten has already parlayed the success of his hyper-stylized, Jane Birkin-starring short “The Lady and the Train” into a feature opportunity (his debut, “The Voyager,” made its festival debut last fall), which should come as no surprise. Certainly, it was a coup to land Birkin as the project’s eponymous “lady,” a curdled old widow whose only pleasure comes from waving at the high-speed train that passes twice a day mere feet from her house. But it’s von Gunten’s inventive, hyper-cutesy style — which recalls such films as “Amélie” and “Toto the Hero” — that seems readymade for a bigger canvas, where such an attention to detail (blue shutters and yellow sweaters) is free to bloom. Though allegedly inspired by true events, the short is so fanciful, it feels like a fairy tale — which is perhaps the right tone on which to end a program of relatively heavy nominees.

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