Live-action misery, animated joy: 2016's Oscar-nominated shorts

The Academy's shorts nominees will arrive in theaters January 29th

Veteran Oscar-watchers will probably raise an eyebrow when they notice that one of the live-action short films up for an Academy Award this year is called "Everything Will Be OK." In the world of Oscar-nominated short films, that kind of reassurance is usually a lie; the final contenders tend to deal with heavy issues and solemn situations from trouble spots around the world. This year, there are two programs of current Oscar-nominated shorts touring arthouse theaters, starting on January 29th. The 86-minute animation block, which includes all five nominated shorts and four bonus "highly commended" shorts, features a range of styles, subjects, and tones. But the stories generally resolve positively, or at least with a bittersweet tinge of relief. The 107-minute live-action block, however, suggests a grim year for shorts. Everything will not be okay.

Ironically, that holds especially true in "Everything Will Be OK (Alles Wird Gut)" a beautifully acted 30-minute German / Austrian piece about a struggling divorced father who's terrified of losing his eight-year-old daughter Lea. From the moment Michael takes Lea to get a new passport, lying to her the entire time about his intentions, the film takes on a sharp edge, honed by the gap between the audience's developing understanding of the situation, and Lea's naïveté. Writer-director Patrick Vollrath gives the short a visual crispness, especially in the deep blacks and golden highlights. The writing and the performances are equally precise. But young actor Julia Pointner, as Lea, is the film's strongest asset. Lea is a difficult role: she starts off playing standard divorce-kid games, playing her parents against each other to get bigger presents from her dad, and reveling in a day where he takes custody. But as she starts to sense that something's going wrong, Pointner's performance gets gradually more troubled. There are professional adult actors who never develop the sense of nuance and subtlety she brings to the short.

Child actors are also key to Kosovo's first Oscar-nominated film, "Shok (Friend)" about the shady dealings two Albanian children have with the military occupiers in their neighborhood in 1998. Tensions between Serbians and Albanians are high, but a boy named Petrit feels he's come to terms with the Serbian soldiers: he sells them rolling papers for cigarettes, planning to use their money to buy a bike, like the one his friend Oki spent a year working to earn. But the story becomes increasingly ugly as Petrit learns he can't trust the occupiers' good will, and that they aren't above abusing a child.

The misery is pushed to exhausting levels

Based on the personal experiences of one of the producers, Kosovo's Eshref Durmishi (who plays the Serbian soldier who assaulted him, taking the role as a form of closure), "Shok" tips its hand somewhat with a present-day frame story that suggests from the beginning what happened. And its focus on weeping, brutalized children, and older people pushes the misery level to exhausting levels. But again, the children playing Petrit and Oki are impressively believable, particularly during the moments when they get to play out their affectionate friendship, outside the barriers of national distrust and oppression.

Oscar 2016 Live Action Shorts Nominees

The 25-minute American short "Day One" goes furthest into miserable territory. The title refers both to the first day on the job for a young Afghan-American woman hired as a military interpreter in Afghanistan, and the first —and possibly last — day of an infant being born under tense circumstances in the middle of a terrorist arrest. Layla Alizada plays the translator without a hint of bravado: she's starting her first adult job, and whatever life she had before, it hasn't equipped her to deal with the complicated religious and political conflicts at play in this tight character piece. But this, of all the shorts in the set, feels like an unfinished slice of a larger work. By the end it feels unresolved, its meaning incomplete as though writer-director Henry Hughes wasn't sure where to take his story once he'd plumbed the depths of misery.

The live-action program's closest nod to humor comes in the 15-minute "Ave Maria," a slightly surreal but sly culture-clash story co-produced out of Palestine, France, and Germany. It takes place on the West Bank, where an improbable cloister of Arab Catholic nuns sworn to silence encounter a noisy trio of Israeli settlers who crash into their statue of the Virgin Mary in the moments before the Sabbath starts. The nuns can't speak without violating their religious tenets; the three settlers, a man and his warring wife and mother, can't touch machinery after sundown without violating their own beliefs. Which makes it difficult for either group to form an escape plan. "Ave Maria" could be said to be a comedy about compromise and the practical limits of religious mores, but it's mostly just a goof about loud people and silent people trying to find common ground.

Oscar handicappers should take a careful look at the best and most stylized of the bunch: the 12-minute UK story "Stutterer" doesn't deal with life-or-death situations, ugly politics or history, or international stresses, so it may feel inconsequential compared to its four competitors. But Matthew Needham's performance as a young man with a debilitating stutter is strikingly pained and sensitive. He feels like a raw nerve compared to the casts of the other shorts, who are dealing with larger issues in less expressive ways.

The film does intense and beautiful things with sound design, filling the air with all the words Needham's character wants to say, and is fighting to say, as he navigates simple experiences like being asked for directions, or being invited to meet the woman he's been chatting with online. Writer-director Benjamin Cleary gives his short a suffocating sense of claustrophobia, as if everything the character is trying to express is building a wall around him, and his inability to get the words out is swallowing all his air. It's a remarkable piece of cinematic empathy, grounded by the artfulness its filmmaking. This year's shorts are all personal stories of unhappy people navigating emotional situations. "Stutterer" just feels more personal than most.

Conflict and strong emotion breeds powerful narratives, and short films often need a lot of punch to make an impact in a quick-hit format. But this year's animated shorts tend to emphasize joy over sorrow, even if the joy only comes at the end. That's the case with the wordless 12-minute Chilean piece "Bear Story," which follows a bear family kidnapped by a malevolent circus. The short's big gimmick is that it mostly takes place inside a nickelodeon owned by a more realistic bear, who lets a kid-bear peek inside the gimcrack to watch the story unfold. It's a strange device, but it enables some remarkable CG animation, as director Gabriel Osorio gives his characters the rust and patchy paint of old, well-loved tin toys, and has every new shot unfold as if it were a diorama in an aged machine, with backgrounds popping up on armatures and characters linked together with gears. It's a tragic story with a happy beginning and ending, both within and without its unusual framing device.

The 16-minute wordless Russian short "We Can't Live Without Cosmos" goes to a melancholy place as well, but first there's a long stretch of pure joy, as two lifelong best friends ace every cosmonaut test and training course together and make their way toward space. The pacing is slow and the animation is plain, but the rapture and enthusiasm come through as the two men jump on their beds together like kids at space camp, or revisit old pictures of themselves as kids, dreaming about winding up where they now are as adults. The short winds up as a study in aspiration, depression, and escapism, but first, it's just an exercise in dreams come true, as shared with an equal and expressive partner. There's more wild happiness in the first five minutes of this piece than in the entire live-action program all put together.

Don Hertzfeldt's eerie-yet-cheery "World Of Tomorrow" explores a loopy sci-fi premise, in which a far-future clone named Emily uses time travel to check in on the child who will become her progenitor. Hertzfeldt sticks by the signature stick-figure style of his previous Oscar-nominated film, "Rejected," and his other shorts, like "Everything Will Be OK." (There's that lie again, applied ironically once more.) But this 17-minute film feels like a culmination of his style, adding layered colors and twitchy, perpetually moving backgrounds.

The script — developed around the cute vocalizations of his four-year-old niece, who plays the original child Emily — is the highlight. Clone-Emily's explanation of the horrors of the future, presented as an emotionless travelogue list of disastrous places she's visited in her own psyche, is hilariously funny, in a terribly dark way. It's a shame the joyous child approaching the world with endless excitement will eventually become the deadened clone, but the ending suggests the future might be malleable, and at the very least is unpredictable. "World Of Tomorrow" has been grabbing the animation awards at a lengthy series of festivals, and if any animated short this year can nab the Oscar out of Pixar's waiting hands, this is it.

Oscar Animated Shorts Nominees 2016

It's going to be a close race, though. This year's Pixar offering, the ebullient seven-minute wonder "Sanjay's Super Team," is a personal story filtered through a compelling fantasy. In Sanjay Patel's debut short, a young Indian boy has no interest in participating in his father's daily religious ritual, until he sees the connection between his father's gods and the superheroes the boy idolizes on TV. It's a dynamic, fast-moving, visually vivid story, but one with a lot of heart at its core. The face-off between this and "World Of Tomorrow" feels like a battle between intellect and emotion, with both films approaching the craft side of the equation from radically different but equally strong angles.

Oscar Animated Shorts Nominees 2016

Not destined to win, but still visually astonishing: the six-minute solo pencil-on-paper piece "Prologue," which largely follows a gory, pyrrhic battle between four photorealistically drawn warriors, two of them graphically nude. "Prologue" feels more like a proof of concept or a demo reel than a story, though the creator, veteran animator Richard Williams, hardly needs more items on his reel: he's the animation director behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the "lost masterpiece" The Thief And The Cobbler. The dynamism of the short, which he worked on between other projects and finally finished at Aardman's animation studios, is stunning. But the program apparently includes a pause to clear the kids out of the room before this one closes out the evening, and with good reason. Few of these animated shorts are really kid-friendly, unless the kids in question are big fans of delicate anomie and surreal, disturbing mood-shifts. But "Prologue" is a straightforward exercise in brutality, a blunt series of realistic moments showing what weapons do to vulnerable human bodies.

Craft-wise, it's a strong and promising year

That's mostly a theme shared by the live-action shorts this year. Sometimes the weapons are actual guns. But lies, cruelty, judgment, and self-doubt become weapons as well, tearing down the characters' relationships and self-confidence. It's a sorrowful year in the live-action category, as it so often is, as if to suggest that solemnity and tragedy are the Academy Awards' primary mark of a respectable, awards-worthy production. But it's a strong year for storytelling and innovation as well. Whether these films are telling upbeat stories or sickening ones, they present them in effective, compelling, and memorable ways. It's a sad year at the live-action Oscar shorts show, and an only marginally happier one over on the animation side. But craft-wise, it's a strong and promising year for both.

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