It used to be that the short-film categories were the great equalizers in the office Oscar pools. For the general public, it was almost impossible to see them prior to the award ceremony. (And, usually, even afterward.)
In recent years, a program of the nominees in the three categories—animated short, live-action short, and documentary short—has screened, enabling the curious to experience the diverse subject matters and styles of these miniature masterpieces. And now, several of the films are available to screen online for free, including those presented by platforms such as The New Yorker and The New York Times.
But to see all the nominees, including some of the best ones, the theatrical program is the only way to go. While it’s hard to discern any broad trends in either society or cinema from the fifteen nominated titles, a certain dark humor creeps up in more than a few of the animated and narrative shorts, while the documentaries are (sometimes painfully) earnest.
It’s almost a cliché by now that watching the Oscar nominees isn’t necessarily helpful in predicting winners, and may in fact be a hindrance. But for what it’s worth, my favorite animated short was the refreshingly candid My Year of Dicks, based on Pamela Ribon’s memoir about her steadfast efforts to lose her virginity as a fifteen-year-old in 1990s Houston. (While the rest of the animated selections are family friendly, this one isn’t, and reportedly there will be an opportunity for children to be escorted from the theater prior to it.) Also notable is The Flying Sailor, a brief, whimsical telling of a reportedly true story about a Canadian sailor caught up in the largest accidental explosion in history, the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
The live-action nominees all hail from Western Europe (assuming one counts the Greenland-filmed Ivalu as a Danish production), a curious and somewhat unfortunate geographic narrowness. Nonetheless, it’s a strong selection. Luxembourg’s The Red Suitcase is a potent glimpse into the life of a desperate young Iranian immigrant. An Irish Goodbye approximates the bleak, profane humor of Martin McDonagh in the story of estranged brothers dealing with their mother’s death. And Norway’s Night Ride features an unforgettable series of encounters aboard a sort-of hijacked tram.
But my vote would go to Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro), who has made an inventive and amusing fable of childhood rebellion with Le pupille (The Pupils). It takes place in a Catholic boarding school for orphaned young girls during World War II, and centers on one charmingly mischievous girl’s efforts to tweak the authoritarian Mother Superior in the weeks leading up to Christmas. There’s not much at stake narratively, but the adorable cast and genuine warmth make it a winner.
Compared to the other two categories, the documentary shorts are a bit of a letdown. Each is a fairly formulaic, if uniformly well-crafted version of its subgenre. There are a couple of environmentally-focused films (Haulout and The Elephant Whisperers) and a historical found-footage assembly (The Martha Mitchell Story, which won’t be news to anyone who watched Gaslit or has studied the Nixon Era.). And there’s a touching family diary film, How Do You Measure a Year?, in which a father asks his daughter the same questions on her birthday over a span of seventeen years.
By default, the best of this bunch is probably Stranger at the Gate, which has the added imprimatur of Malala as one of its executive producers. (Apparently Malala is a big enough celebrity by now that she only needs one name.) It’s about a Marine veteran imprinted with Islamophobia after 9/11 who plots to blow up a Muslim Community Center in Muncie, Indiana. It doesn’t go how he planned. The story would make a great podcast episode, but it doesn’t push any envelopes filmmaking-wise. (“2023 Oscar Nominated Short Films” opens on Friday, Feb. 17, at the Hollywood Theatre, the Living Room Theaters, Cinema 21, the Kiggins Theatre, the Salem Cinema, and others)
Those of us who’ve been in awe of the marvelous Michelle Yeoh since the days of Supercop and The Heroic Trio are chuffed at the prominence she’s gained following her Oscar-nominated turn in Everything Everywhere All at Once. One happy result of Yeoh’s newfound mass popularity is the re-release this week of a shiny new 4k version of Ang Lee’s 2000 martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
This was the film that introduced Yeoh, and the entire wuxia genre, to a wide American audience, and it remains the highest-grossing foreign language film in U.S. history. (The way non-English-language movies get distributed these days, it should hold that title for some time to come.) There’s not much more to say, other than: it holds up. The film is beautifully shot, stunningly costumed, and full of graceful, sincere performances—plus, of course, some of the most influential stunt work in history. (Opens Friday, Feb. 17, at Cinema 21, the Eugene Art House, and other theaters statewide)
“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,” boasts Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The latest volley from the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the opposite problem. Its heroes spend the vast majority of the film shrunk to subatomic size, while the rest of the film is bloated, overstuffed, and garish. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (who else is nostalgic for the days when this would have just been Ant-Man 3?) discards the aspects of its predecessors that made them, at least the first one, amusing and self-deprecating takes on the genre.
A lot of Ant-Man’s success was due to the casting of Paul Rudd, the world’s sexiest Everyman, as the decidedly chaotic neutral Scott Lang. As the films have progressed, however, Rudd’s charm has been more and more frequently slathered over by visual effects or obscured by his Ant-Man helmet. This time, the whole damn ant-family — Scott, his partner Hope van Dyne a.k.a The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Hope’s parents Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) — gets sucked down into the Quantum Realm where Janet spent thirty years imprisoned.
The place turns out to be much different than she described it, a psychedelic wonderland painted with pixels that made me think of something The Thing said during one of the Fantastic Four’s trips through The Negative Zone: “Sheesh! Looks like Peter Max threw up!” The party gets split up, and they spend the rest of the movie trying to reunite while Janet refuses to tell them anything about the years she spent there, even though the local residents (oh, look, it’s Chidi from The Good Place!) know and fear her. I don’t know why the rest of the family doesn’t just hold her down and force her to fess up.
Turns out that the big bad is Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a time-travelling explorer and, well, conqueror who’s been stranded in the Quantum Realm since Janet prevented his escape years earlier. You may remember Kang, or a slightly different version of him, from the Disney+ TV series Loki, or you might not. If Kang gets back to the regular-sized world, there’s going to be big trouble. (Spoiler alert: Majors is scheduled to appear in several MCU films down the road.)
When the actors, especially Rudd and Newton, have space to relate to one another and breathe, there are some fun moments. But they don’t compensate for the indignity suffered by Oscar-winner Michael Douglas as his character struggled to pilot some sort of living aircraft that involves sticking his hands into gelatinous goo. The whole thing smacks of the bigger, faster, more mentality that has infected superhero movies. When the whole universe, or multiverse, is at stake, the problems of three (or five) little people in a big world don’t amount to a hill of beans. Which makes it hard to really give a damn. (“Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” opens on Friday, Feb. 17, everywhere.)