oscar nominees

Short Reviews of Short Movies – 2017 Edition – Oscar Nominated Shorts

PIPER*The Oscar Nominated Animated and Live-Action Short Film Programs are now playing throughout Northern California. Read my 2016 Oscar-nominated shorts coverage HERE.

ANIMATED SHORT NOMINEES (arranged from best to worst)

  1. Piper (Alan Barillaro; USA)

2.Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Robert Valley; Canada)

These are the only two films in either program that rise above the squishy middle, and they couldn’t be more different.  Pixar’s wordless, 6-minute Piper is a model of visual and narrative economy, while still tantalizing your eyeballs with a stunning level of sumptuous detail.  And it’s Pixar, so naturally they know how to wring a tear from this simple coming-of-age tale about a baby sandpiper without squeezing too hard. Canadian artist Robert Valley’s 35-minute Pear Cider and Cigarettes, on the other hand, is a full-blown graphic novel come to life, a jittery yet elastic story about the narrator’s childhood hero facing his end while waiting for a Chinese kidney.

3. Pearl (Patrick Osborne; USA)

Another wordless six minutes of smart visual storytelling, but goddamn if this decades-spanning tale that views a father-daughter relationship from the inside of their automobile doesn’t feel like a long-form domestic car commercial.  Although beautifully executed, it’s an ode to innocence that feels too cynical to succeed; in other words, it’s boomer porn, so obviously it has the best chance to upset Piper, especially if the never-Pixars get out the vote.

4. Borrowed Time (Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj; USA)

5. Blind Vaysha (Theodore Ushev; Canada)

Hard to know what to make of either of these; in the same way that some films feel created for the sole purpose of winning awards, these two and Pearl feel like miniature versions of the same strategy.  Borrowed Time has some impressively vivid visuals, but the story of a cowboy reliving a painful incident from his youth is filled with a dark, empty portent worthy of Villenueve at his worst.   Meanwhile, Blind Vaysha smooshes our noses into drippy allegory – the title character lives with one eye that sees only the past, and one eye that sees only the future, and the film ends by asking, “How many of us see the world like Blind Vaysha?”  Derp!rsz_pear_cider_and-_cigarettes07.jpg

LIVE-ACTION SHORT NOMINEES (arranged from best to worst)

  1. TIMECODE (Petra Lottje; Germany)

Hoo-boy, we’re in for a slog when this pleasant trifle is the belle of the ball.  Two parking lot security guards who never speak trade modern dance moves during the late shift, directing each other to the camera and timecode that captured their gyrations.  It builds to an entertaining finale where the now-fired workers perform for their bastard boss and his off-the-books new-hire, and it closes on the most obvious punchline.  Like I said, it’s not a great group.

2. Enemies Within (Selim Azzazi; France)

3. Sing (Kristóf Deák; Hungary)

A couple of decent and heartfelt films undermined by their anonymous aesthetics and annoying self-righteousness.  Enemies Within feels eerily ripped from the headlines, as an Algerian-born Muslim living in France applies for citizenship, and promptly finds himself slated for interrogation and possible deportation.  It’s a Stanley Kramer sort of short, if you know what I mean.  The Hungarian entry Sing also carries a certain topical relevance – it’s about bullying and peer pressure, to an extent, but it’s largely about children rejecting the ethical laxity of their elders, as a choir teacher pressures weak singers to pantomime.  Sing ends on a perfect albeit smug note of silent protest, but I wish there was more rhythm and soul to the piece.rsz_zz1bbf4214

4. Silent Nights (Aske Bang; Denmark)

5. The Railroad Lady (Timo von Gunten; Switzerland)

Ugh.  The process of winnowing down the world of 2016 short films into five nominees is long and filled with checks and balances…and you end up nominating these two stinkers?  Silent Nights is the Dardennes Brothers sellout movie of my nightmares, a nauseatingly pious and pseudo-inspirational love story between a huge-hearted Danish volunteer and an African-born homeless man.  Even if it lands in an icky place, at least Silent Nights feels somewhat edgy and relevant – starring Blow-Up blonde Jane Birkin as a cranky widow crushing on the train driver who whizzes by her window every day, The Railroad Lady is nothing more than  The Shortest Exotic Marigold Hotel.  It’s actually pretty appalling that this film is nominated…I wish I knew the short film scene well enough to suggest several dozen alternatives, but I’m fairly certain that they’re out there.  Obviously, The Railroad Lady is the best bet to win the Oscar.

Short Reviews of Short Movies – 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts at the Crest

index*The Oscar Nominated Animated Short Film Program plays at the Crest Theater in Sacramento tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 4pm.  The Oscar Nominated Live-Action Short Film Program plays tomorrow at 7:30pm.

ANIMATED SHORT NOMINEES (from best to worst)

World of Tomorrow (Don Herzfeldt; USA)

We Can’t Live Without Cosmos (Konstantin Bronzit; Russia)

I already raved about both of these films last October in my review of the 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows, so it’s no surprise that they’re far and away the class of this field.  Herzfeldt’s bleakly hopeful World of Tomorrow is unique among the nominees in its verbosity and wide-ranging ideas – the rest of them are essentially one-track-minded silent films.  We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, a clever, heartbreaking and efficiently told story of best friends and possible lovers training to become cosmonauts, is easily the best of these silents, all clean visual and narrative lines.

indexBear Story (Gabriel Osorio Vargas; Chile)

Mythic and bittersweet, this one is about an aging bear who shares his life story through an impossibly intricate mechanical diorama.  We see the bear ripped away from his family by evil circus masters (an obvious but effective symbol for the dictatorial oppression of Pinochet) and forced to perform increasingly dangerous and demeaning stunts.  Slight and sweet.

Prologue (Richard Williams; UK)

An interesting use of space here, as the frame swoops around and over a few menacing figures, seemingly uncertain whether they’re fighting each other or some unseen, off-page enemy.  The comic book-style pencil drawings look like something my friend Tim would have passed me in a high school math class, so it’s got that going for it, but mostly this feels like a half-realized exercise.  A last-second twinge of conscience hurts more than it helps, especially since it arrives right after someone gets stabbed in the asshole.

indexSanjay’s Super Team (Sanjay Patel; USA)

The obligatory Pixar entry, this one played before The Good Dinosaur during its theatrical run, so you probably didn’t see it (domestic box office zing!).  It’s a heartfelt, colorful, semi-autobiographical story about bridging cultural and generational gaps…so why didn’t I like it very much?  Probably because the intersection of religious fervor and comic book fandom sits about as far away from my own heartstrings as you can get.

Live-Action Short Nominees (ranked from best to worst)

Everything Will Be Okay (Patrick Vollrath; Germany/Austria)

Clocking in at exactly 30 minutes, this is the longest of the shorts, and also the best.  A mini-Dardenne slice of banal desperation, fully realized from innocuous start to devastating finish.  It stars Simon Schwarz as a divorced father spoiling his young daughter over their joint custody weekend, although it doesn’t take long to realize that his goals are far scarier.  Only 30 years old, writer-director Patrick Vollrath is already a prolific director of short films (according to his IMDB page, this is his seventh), and he’s a filmmaker I plan to keep an eye on.index

Ave Maria (Basil Khalil; Palestine/France/Germany)

In a largely grim field, an irresistible morsel of irreverent levity.  An Israeli family crashes their car outside of a convent on the Palestine border, setting off a series of events that causes both Jews and Catholics to abandon their religious convictions.  Ave Maria offers 15 minutes of nonstop sight gags (a beheaded Virgin Mary statue bleeding oil; holy water poured into a carburetor) and relentless energy without ever breaking a sweat.  It’s a blast.

Shok (Jamie Donoughue; UK/Kosovo)

An emotionally resonant but weirdly impersonal memory piece about an abandoned bicycle that inspires a flashback to a charged childhood memory.  Most of the film takes place in Kosovo during the 1990s, when ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs escalated into war, but the story revolves around the severely tested friendship of two Albanian boys caught in the middle.  A good story, well-acted and directed, but the script is a mess, simultaneously underwritten and overwritten.

indexStutterer (Benjamin Cleary; UK)

A likable but uneven romantic comedy about a lonely young man with a speech impediment, and the  anxiety he feels over meeting his online girlfriend for the first time.  At times a funny and observant character study, at others an insufferably narcissistic shoegazer.  Maybe it’s just weird to me that anyone would want to become the next Richard Curtis, as Cleary clearly does.

Day One (Henry Hughes; USA)

The only film of the ten that I would call “bad,” a grossly slick war movie about a female military interpreter’s hellish first day on the job.  There are some impressive shots, but it feels like Hughes only made this to prove that he could direct the films that Marc Forster and James Mangold reject.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 2/12 issue


*Marion Cotillard gives the best performance of her career in Two Days, One Night, the latest bleak slice-of-life from the Dardennes brothers.


*The star-studded dud Seventh Son is the cinematic equivalent of an American flag produced in an overseas sweatshop.

Netflix Instant Review of the Week

Anwar-congo The Act of Killing (2013; Dir.: Joshua Oppenheimer, w/ Christine Cynn and Anonymous)


By Daniel Barnes

One of the great, unique, often intangible and sometimes scary potentials of the film medium is the way that cinematic artifice can achieve something more profound than mere fact.  We usually talk about realism in the sense of grimy settings and handheld cameras, but the manufactured beauty of set-bound stylists like Hitchcock, Almodovar, Max Ophuls, and Vincente Minnelli supersedes a mundane depiction of reality and captures a more transcendent truth.

That’s why I would argue that Brian De Palma’s deranged rock-and-roll fantasy The Phantom of the Paradise is a more accurate depiction of the music industry than La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story, or any other musical biopic.  In the same sense, John Frankenheimer’s surrealist political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which connects the veins of political corruption to a toxic heart of psychological deviance, is a more realistic look at politics than grim, stiff-necked dramas like Lincoln and The Ides of March.

Among so many other things, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (co-directed by Christine Cynn and “Anonymous” – a number of key credits here are listed as Anonymous) displays that power of film to transcend reality, even when it’s aiming to pervert it.  In the early 1970s, Indonesian death squads often run by street gangsters killed over one million innocent people under the guise of eradicating Communism.  Forty years later, not only have they gone un-persecuted for their crimes, they have achieved great wealth and influence because of them, and now seek to memorialize their “heroics” on film.

The main figure is Anwar Congo, a bright-eyed, snowy-haired senior citizen and former “movie theater gangster”/executioner whose great legacy was to create a more efficient method of slaughtering Communists.  Early in the film, he visits the scene of his murders, gleefully demonstrating his bloodless method of strangling people, and even spontaneously breaking into dance on his victims’ graves.  He intends to make a film glorifying his war crimes as heroic deeds, but after experiencing the naked self-discovery of performance, he revisits the same murder scene and can’t stop violently retching.

This artifice-as-honesty paradox is at the heart of the best sequence in The Act of Killing.  A neighbor of Congo, pulled in for a minor role in the film, tells the killers about discovering and burying his father’s corpse in the wake of the death squads.  Knowing that the cameras are recording him talk about his own life, he is self-conscious, and smilingly assures the killers that he only intends to offer research, not criticism.  When the cameras roll and that same neighbor assumes the role of a tortured “Communist”, the intensity of his performance grasps at something more genuine and personal than simple storytelling can convey.

An upset victim at the Academy Awards to the more voter bloc-friendly documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing is the film that I was most disappointed I could not watch in time for my Top 10 of 2013 list.  Right now, it would join documentaries Stories We Tell and Room 237 in my top 5, along with Upstream Color and Inside Llewyn Davis.  You can check out my updated rankings of every 2013 film I’ve seen here.