Sunday, February 24, 2019

Oscar Reviews: Best Live Action Short Nominees

Every year, I try to watch all of the Oscar nominees for Best Live Action short, and I can tell you with no hesitation that this crop of short films is by far the darkest, most brutal collection of Oscar nominated shorts I’ve ever seen. Below are my thoughts on each of the nominees, and my prediction of who will win. Check out these shorts if you can. They aren’t easy, but they’re all incredibly well made.

Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Madre is a wonderfully controlled film with a terrifying premise. The film contains just four unbroken shots, and the bulk of the short is captured in one extended take in an apartment. During this take, a young mother in Spain receives a phone call from her six-year-old son in which the boy admits that he has been left alone on a beach, and his father is nowhere to be found. The boy is confused and becomes increasingly scared; he doesn’t see any notable landmarks, and isn’t even sure if he’s in Spain or France.

The mother is, of course, horrified by what’s happening, but tries to contain her fear as to not frighten her child. Throughout the take, the mother keeps passing her cell phone off to her own mother, who is in the apartment with her. And as the grandmother talks to the boy, the mother frantically calls the police, the father’s friends – anyone who knows anything.

The true horror of Madre comes alive in the carefully written screenplay, and the acting of the three people involved, including the boy on the phone. And because the movie never cuts during this scene, the tension mounts rapidly. We’re never given a chance to look away.

Madre is a fantastic short; a simple premise, told with confidence and conviction. This isn’t easy viewing, but it’s one of the best short films I’ve seen in quite some time. A

Directed by Jérémy Comte
I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and many of my summer days were spent walking around desolate places with my best friend, making our own fun along the way. Fauve contains two young boys who are just like this. They play on an abandoned train, run around empty construction sites, and do whatever aimless stuff they can think of to pass the time.

Then, without warning, their harmless goofing off becomes very serious very quickly. Like Madre, Fauve is chilling in its simplicity, and it reminded me that something like this could’ve easily happened to my group of friends growing up.

My one and only minor quibble is that the film runs too long. It has a perfectly organic ending in place, yet it extends itself for another four minutes. But please, don’t get me wrong, the final moment of the short is telling, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. A-

Directed by Marianne Farley
Finally, some reprieve from the emotional chaos in these other shorts. Marguerite is about a kind elderly woman who receives hospice care from a young nurse, and after the nurse reveals that she is gay, a curious bit of nostalgia sparks within the older woman.

The entire short takes place in the older woman’s home, with sharp cuts to black to help signify that a new day has come. The standout of the short is the two performances, which are tonally perfect. The women play off each other beautifully, with the nurse fully appreciating each of the older woman’s admissions.

Marguerite is a gentle film, full of warmth and compassion. Which certainly helps it stand out among the rest of the morbid shorts in this list. B

Directed by Vincent Lambe
Aside from film, the area of study I’m most interested in is psychology, particularly criminal psychology. And in all my years of study and research, I have rarely come across a case as awful and confounding as the murder of 2-year-old James Patrick Bulger.

In 1993, two 10-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, kidnapped James Bulger from a mall, took him to a nearby canal, and tortured him to death. If you’re interested in true crime, you know that crimes like this don’t happen without a reason, but that was exactly what was missing from this case. Thompson and Venables had no reason or excuse to justify what they did, leading many to believe that the two kids were born evil.

Detainment is a somewhat modest retelling of this crime. Thankfully, the brutalities of James’ murder are left unseen, and the film relies heavily on the recorded interrogations of both Thompson and Venables to fill the narrative. Venables is played as a confused and sensitive kid who is terrified by the ramifications of what he’s done. Thompson is played as a cold psychopath who doesn’t seem phased by his crime. Both boys’ initial denial, and eventual acceptance, of what they’ve done is horrifying to watch unfold.

Understandably, James’ real-life mother is furious that this movie has been made. I cannot imagine having to reexperience this pain due to a narrative film, but I would like to say one final thing about Detainment. Thompson and Venables were released eight years after they committed this crime, and were given new identities to protect their anonymity. Venables has been in and out of jail since, but no one really knows who or where Robert Thompson is. Detainment helps cement the fact that these two should have never been released from prison, no matter their age when they committed the crime. The film doesn’t explore the Why of what happened, but that’s because it’s a question that can’t be answered. Some people, no matter how young, are beyond reform. B+

Directed by Guy Nattiv
Well this group of shorts certainly doesn’t end on any sort of uplifting note. Skin, the most dangerous short of the group, is about the fallout of a young boy who witnesses his racist, redneck dad (Jonathan Tucker) beat a black man nearly to death for virtually no reason. Shortly after the attack, the dad is abducted, and revenge is had, but not in the way you’d expect.

Tucker’s portrayal of this man is terrifying, not only for the senseless violence he initiates, but for his general apathy toward that violence. The day after the beating, for example, dad and son go out for some redneck surfing (pulling a couch with a pickup truck), and have a ball doing it. The attack isn’t mentioned, which gives us some insight into how routine violence is to these people. 

Skin is a vicious short that contains many harsh realities of America today. It is competently made, certainly, but difficult to sit through. B+

Final Thoughts
As mentioned, I have never seen a group of Oscar-nominated shorts that are this universally brutal. Marguerite is the quiet exception, and I’m betting that film’s patient humility will win out on Sunday. If I were an Academy member, Madre would get my vote. Its strong story and technical simplicity make it a terrifying marvel of a short.

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  1. I love that you wrote about these nominees. It's really not the category that gets all the fire, but you never know how you could be watching the breakthrough film of the next Andrea Arnold or Martin McDonagh.

    Funny thing is, both Marguerite and Fauve were distributed by the very same young company based in Montreal (where I live) and were made by friends of friends of mine. Needless to say, the entire film community here has been freaking out ever since the nominations!

    1. That's so cool! Those were two very well made films, and I'm so happy they were nominated. I really thought Marguerite would win. I never thought Skin would win; odds wise, that would've been my last pick. That movie is so un-PC that I am stunned it won an Oscar.

  2. These films sound interesting. Plus, they do get overlooked as we always don't know what to expect. Especially as we could be looking at a filmmaker who will blow us away. The category at least introduced us to Andrea Arnold and Taika Waititi (who lost to Arnold that year).

    1. Damn right! It's pretty much because of Andrea Arnold that I try to watch these every year. This was honestly the best collection of Oscar nominated short films that I had seen in any given year. Really great work. Stunned that Skin won though.

  3. Are these all avaliable on Vimeo? Just finished a short film myself and am very excited to catch some of these- especially Madre- although after reading the plot of Skin I'm genuinley quite concerned it won the award. Hopefully the film-making enlivens its point but on paper its pretty backwards.

    1. Okay, so, no bullshit, Skin's win was the biggest surprise of the night for me. That movie is fucking insane, and so un-PC, which does not fit in with America's pop culture climate right now. I cannot believe that movie won. My guess is that, because it was only one of two shorts in English, voters just went with it by default.

      I rented the films on iTunes, so I'm not sure if they're on Vimeo. But I want to see your short film! Are you sharing it with people yet?