In case you missed it, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced some changes to this year’s Oscar telecast. In a blow to anyone who sees the year’s biggest movie event as a unique opportunity for filmmakers who labor in relative obscurity to have the moment of their lives, it was revealed that several awards would be handed out in a pre-recorded portion of the ceremony. Among those awards are the three short-film prizes: live-action, documentary, and animated.
This is baloney. If ABC thinks it can draw a larger, more profitable audience by simply inviting the ten most popular films of the year, then they should do that. I look forward to next year’s face-off between the Top Gun reboot, the Jurassic Park reboot, the Batman reboot, and the latest from those adorable Minions to see which will be dubbed the Best Picture of the Year. Meanwhile, perhaps another broadcaster or organization can take up the mantle of spotlighting movies that demonstrate exceptional achievement in the “Arts” and “Sciences” of filmmaking. (And, yes, of course the Oscars have always catered to the Hollywood portion of the global film industry, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always embraced the idea that box office is the only reliable indicator of quality.) End rant.
Speaking of those short-film categories, it’s somewhat ironic that they are being largely erased from the Oscar telecast at the same time it’s becoming easier than ever for viewers to actually see the nominees. Once again this year, screenings of each category’s nominees allow for educated predictions on one’s Oscar ballot. (Of course, educated predictions only sometimes correlate to correct predictions in this arena.) The good news: a majority of these fifteen movies are worthy of a statuette. The bad news: whichever one wins won’t get the live, global TV audience it deserves.
LIVE-ACTION SHORTS: Trauma that intersects the personal and political is the dominant theme in these five nominees, every one of which ends with an emotional gut punch. The biggest star power comes from 2021 Best Actor nominee Riz Ahmed in The Long Goodbye. He plays one member of a British South Asian family who find their preparations for a wedding interrupted by the sudden, unexplained appearance of armed vigilantes who drag them into the street and commit brutal acts of violence upon them. The film accompanied the release of Ahmed’s 2020 album of the same name, which he termed as his “break-up” with post-Brexit Britain.
Other depictions of marginalized individuals caught in oppressive situations beyond their control include Take and Run, about a young woman in Kyrgyzstan who runs away to the capital to get an education, but is kidnapped into an arranged marriage; and Please Hold, in which a young Latino man in the near future is arrested by a law enforcement drone and sucked into a surreal incarceration system of Kafkaesque banality, complete with animated, voice-activated “assistant” to inform the prisoner of his likelihood of conviction, expected sentence, and available plea deals, while never revealing the crime of which he’s accused.
More intimate dramas play out in On My Mind, in which a desperate man commandeers a dive bar’s karaoke microphone to pay a bittersweet tribute, and The Dress, which would garner my vote as the most impactful of the set. This product of the Warsaw Film School, directed by Tadeusz Lysiak, features an awe-inspiring performance from Anna Dieduszycka, who plays a woman with dwarfism working as a housecleaner in a rural Polish motel. Her lonely, virginal existence is rocked by the presence of a handsome, dark-haired truck driver with whom she develops a friendship and an affection. What could have easily degenerated into simple pathos is instead a deeply moving meditation on human relationships.
DOCUMENTARY SHORTS: Oddly, the short documentary nominees approach the social issues they’re concerned with at, generally, a more oblique angle than the live-action short dramas. Even more oddly, the one that tackles its topic in the most head-on manner is the most impressive of an impressive quintet. Lead Me Home is a 40-minute plunge into the reality of the American homelessness problem, especially as it’s realized in the West Coast hubs of Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. (It takes virtually no effort to transpose any scene in the film to Portland.) Through interviews and on-the-street footage, we meet an array of unsheltered folks as they try to make their way toward a supportive housing situation. In other words, these are all people with the mental health and remaining fortitude to at least try to get off the street. And yet, of course, their stories are as heartbreaking as they are relatable, telling of seemingly stable lives that collapsed into desperation and anarchy for one reason or another. Meanwhile, cinematic drone footage captures the contrast between seemingly endless tent cities and the gilded towers on their horizons, between the humanity of these individuals and the inhumanity of the society on whose margins they exist. This is a must-see.
Of the remaining nominees, two tell inspiring sports stories. Audible is about the nationally renowned high school football team from the Maryland School for the Deaf, and it centers on an impressive young man named Amaree McKenstry as he and his friends try to end their senior year on a high note while mourning the loss of a classmate. Another resilient athlete takes center stage in The Queen of Basketball, which profiles Lucy Harris, a 6’3” Black teenager from Mississippi who took the women’s collegiate sports world by storm in the 1970s by leading her small, rural college to three straight national championships. She also scored the first basket by a woman in Olympics history and was actually drafted by the New Orleans Jazz. She is a life-affirming presence in this admiring portrait, made all the more poignant by Harris’ sudden death only a month ago.
The other two nominees approach flawed masculinity from two very different angles. Three Songs for Benazir follows a young husband living in an Afghan refugee camp who wants to run off and join the National Army, but finds his macho dream difficult to achieve. It offers a surprising degree of access to life in these large, permanent camps, but doesn’t offer a lot in terms of psychological depth. On the other hand, When We Were Bullies proves too self-indulgent in this regard, as a middle-aged ex-New Yorker randomly encounters a grade-school classmate and the pair embarks on a quest for the truth around an infamous (at least to them) incident of bullying at P.S. 194 decades ago. It’s just the sort of first-person-narrated, guess-what-happened-to-me story I find intolerable, and it’s the only one of the shorts that’s too long.
ANIMATION: Let’s get one thing clear: the adults-only warning accompanying this program is nothing to be trifled with. Only one of these nominees is family-friendly, and the rest range from the risqué to the flat-out disturbing. In both styles and media, this category, as usual, demonstrates true diversity and unfettered imagination. And, unlike in most of the live-action entries, there are a few glimpses of hope and humor here. An Affair of the Art uses Bill Plympton-ish hand-drawn animation to introduce the endearing, eccentric antics of Beryl, an aging housewife who’s decided to pursue a career as a “hyper-futuristic” painter, while Boxballet, in a more traditionally cartoonish mode, follows the relationship between a brutish, broad-shouldered pugilist and an elongated, refined ballerina.
The always-reliable Aardman studio contributes the kid-friendly Robin Robin, about a baby chick, raised by mice, who teams up with a larcenous magpie (Richard E. Grant) to steal a Christmas tree star from under the nose of a ferocious cat (Gillian Anderson). It’s adorable. But it doesn’t resonate the way the quasi-rotoscoped Spanish entry, The Windshield Wiper, does, as a man smoking cigarettes in a café ponders the meaning of love in all its platonic and carnal forms.
For me, the best of the bunch is also the darkest and weirdest (go figure). Bestia uses Svankmajerian stop-motion, all details and creaks, to draw a razor-sharp yet enigmatic portrait of a woman who works as an agent for the Chilean secret police, presumably during the Pincohet era. The use of placid-faced porcelain doll heads for the various characters hits just the right note of anonymized amorality, making the glimpses into its subject’s private life all the more unnerving.
(Opening Friday, Feb. 25, at a surprisingly wide array of theaters throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington.)
ALSO ON THE BIG SCREEN:
The Conversation: Hark back to those days of yore, when the surveillance state was but a dewy-eyed child, with this weekend’s screenings of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece of paranoia, presented in a new 35mm print. Wonder at the subdued, yet intense performance of Gene Hackman as a hired bugging pro who spies on and records a young couple, then becomes both confused over what he hears and conflicted over the purpose of the job. Gasp at the iconic faces in secondary roles: Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, John Cazale, Cindy Williams! This is paranoia par excellence, part of Coppola’s epic 1970s run, and somehow only the second-best film he released that year. Don’t miss this opportunity to see (and hear) it on the big screen. You might think twice, though, before you have Alexa buy your tickets for you. (Screens Friday-Sunday, Feb. 22-24, at the Hollywood Theatre; opens digitally on March 11 at the Living Room Theaters)
Cinema Unbound honorees: The long-shuttered Whitsell Auditorium will be dusted off and aired out starting this weekend, as the Northwest Film Center holds a series of screenings of work by this year’s recipients of its “Cinema Unbound” awards. The program kicks off with the Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary Life, Animated, directed by honoree Roger Ross Williams; current five-time Oscar nominee (including for Best Picture) King Richard, directed by honoree Reinaldo Marcus Green; and a preview screening of the political satire Land of Dreams, co-directed by honoree Shirin Neshat. Check www.nwfilm.org for a full schedule.