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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.

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part II

rsz_film_hero_demon_01_1Monday, November 21

I Am Not Your Negro (Dir.: Raoul Peck; GRADE: B+)

Do not open until 2017.

Demon (Dir.: Marcin Wrona; GRADE: B-)

An admirable but only fitfully successful arthouse horror movie about a Polish wedding disrupted by a “dybbuk,” an angry and dissatisfied Jewish spirit that attaches itself to the Israeli groom.  As the groom’s behavior grows increasingly erratic and dangerous, exhuming not just ghosts but long-buried secrets of atrocities against the Jews, the father of the bride plies his guests with more and more vodka, and soon enough their bacchanal merges with the supernatural suffering.  Wrona favors disturbing compositions and shock cuts over long-winded explanations, but the final act still falls into a navel-gazing tailspin.

The Thoughts That Once We Had (Dir.: Thom Andersen; GRADE: B)

Another wide-ranging, thought-provoking documentary intersecting cinema, politics, philosophy and personal taste from the director of Los Angeles Plays Itself, only far less enveloping and focused an experience.  Andersen crafts a personal history of cinema through the lens of Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who often wrote about film.  I honestly can’t say that I grokked much of what Anderson laid down here, but I dug his rap all the same – it’s a pungently intellectual and marvelously curated cinematic journey.rsz_unsun

Jackie (Dir.: Pablo Larrain; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until December 21.  Check out my updated MVFF39 Power Rankings HERE.

Julieta (Dir.: Pedro Almodovar; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until 2017.  Check out my updated Pedro Almodovar Power Rankings HERE.

Under the Sun (Dir.: Vitaly Mansky; GRADE: B+)

Unbelievable.  When Ukrainian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky was given government permission to make a documentary about a typical North Korean family, he was followed round-the-clock by bureaucrats who monitored the production and tailored the script to glorify the country, but the b-roll footage smuggled out and fashioned into Under the Sun tells a different story.  North Korea is fascinating not just because it’s a Lynch-ian nightmare parody of fascism, but because it makes us think about how our own country is run in a subtly similar way: like a flashy cult filled with mindless rituals, spotlighting heroism and prosperity while the poor and exploited are rendered invisible.

Wednesday, November 23

Elle (Dir.: Paul Verhoeven; GRADE: B+)

rsz_the-waveDo not open until 2017.  Check out my updated Paul Verhoeven Power Rankings HERE.

Nerve (Dir.: Henry Joost and Ariel Schuman; GRADE: B-)

Reasonably entertaining idiocy, with Emma Roberts and Dave Franco as “players” in a game controlled by anonymous online “watchers” who push the participants into ever more embarrassing and dangerous stunts.  Think Pokemon Go meets truth or dare meets murder, directed by the “brains” behind Catfish.  It’s breathless and salacious enough to hold your interest, and while the film seems to shed IQ points as it hurtles towards a truly stupid finish, it’s still better than probably half the films that will get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year.

Finding Dory (Dir.: Andrew Stanton; GRADE: B)

Thoroughly unnecessary piffle, with a lot of narrative structural integrity issues and some obvious 11th-hour tinkering, but like last year’s similarly strained The Good Dinosaur, it’s pushed over by the usual expert Pixar craftsmanship.  The chameleonic octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill is the one element that unquestionably works, so he gets repeatedly shoehorned into scenes where his presence makes little sense, presumably filling in for excised storylines.  There are a few memorable setpieces, solid voice work and the usual cleverness and beauty you expect from Pixar – this isn’t a Cars 2-level embarrassment, but it’s pretty far from great.  Check out my updated Pixar Power Rankings HERE.rsz_les_saisons_galatee

Lion (Dir.: Garth Davis; GRADE: C)

Do not open until December 21.

Thursday, November 24

The Wave (Dir.: Roar Uthaug; GRADE: B-)

I’m obviously running low on viable screener options when I pop in a Norwegian disaster movie on Thanksgiving morning, but you go to war with the army you’ve got.  This was actually a pretty watchable facsimile of American disaster movies, with the emphasis placed on characters rather than carnage, even better than San Andreas if not for the absence of Alexandra Daddario.

Les Saisons (Dir.: Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud; GRADE: C+)

Perrin and Cluzaud previously collaborated on nature documentaries like Winged Migration and Oceans, and their strength has always been their ability to get close to their wildlife subjects without superimposing a contrived human narrative on the creatures.  That appreciation for beauty and persistence, and that restraint in the face of DisneyNature aggression, comes across once again in Les Saisons, although a heavy-handed framing device about man’s intrusion into the world’s timeline drags the film down.  There are some gorgeous individual images, but they all feel disconnected from the didacticism at the heart of this thing.

Friday, November 25

rsz_close-up_red_1The Love Witch (Dir.: Anna Biller; GRADE: C+)

This deliberately retrograde horror satire mimics the clothes and colors of 1960s Technicolor movies (even though the characters use cell phones), and the acting is extremely mannered and bad in a way that I can only assume is meant to evoke the same.  Biller’s film is getting a lot of love from critics, but I felt as alienated and annoyed by this cinematic re-appropriation as I have felt in the past about some of Guy Maddin’s movies…there’s an element of contemptuous superiority and intentional shittiness that I just can’t hurdle.

High-Rise ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Ben Wheatley; GRADE: B+)

No significant insights or changes of opinion from my initial viewing of this pitch-black adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s satire on 1970’s capitalism and convenience.  In a weak year for award-worthy male acting performances, Tom Hiddleston’s sleek showing as the social-climbing Dr. Laing has a good shot of making my SFFCC and Indiewire ballots, while Luke Evans’ highly physical performance as the working-class Wilder still has an outside chance in the supporting actor category.

20th Century Women (Dir.: Mike Mills; GRADE: C)

Do not open until Xmas.rsz_hero_krisha-2016

Krisha ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Trey Edward Shults; GRADE: A-)

Again, no real changes from my first viewing of this sucker-punch domestic drama.  Either cruelly compassionate or compassionately cruel, Krisha feels like the family dinner scene from Punch-Drunk Love developed into a full-length feature – the film practically vibrates with a nervous energy.  Shults shot the film in his parents’ house and used friends and family as actors, including his aunt Krisha Fairchild, who gives a devastatingly desperate performance in the title role.  Shults landed a two-picture deal with Krisha distributor A24, so it will be exciting to see what happens once he leaves the nest.

Look for Part III of my 2016 Cramfest Capsules sometime next week. You can read Part I of the 2016 Cramfest HERE, and check out my frequently updated 2016 Power Rankings HERE.