Handicapping the 2015 short film Oscar races

Posted by · 11:04 am · January 21st, 2015

If you've been reading us this season then you know we've already given you pretty thorough analyses of this year's short film categories. I watched all the films that made it to the final consideration stage and offered up thoughts on each and some somewhat informed predictions. In the end, though, it was still tricky to guess, but I did get four of the five animated players right. Now, with nominees announced, it seems worth it to review. So let's…

All things considered, the animated short category is difficult to handicap. Particularly with the infiltration of other voters, as theses categories are opened up to the entire membership via screeners, it's just hard to guess which way preference will fall. The biggest surprise for me was that Glen Keane's gorgeous, heavily promoted “Duet” missed out on a nod. I frankly thought it could have put up a fight to win, but that's how it crumbles sometimes.

However, for many, the frontrunner might be Disney's “Feast,” which is certainly the year's most-viewed nominee as it screened ahead of “Big Hero 6” in theaters across the world. But there's folly in this logic that just because it's more widely-viewed, it has a leg up. Just last year we saw “Mr. Hublot” beating out “Get a Horse!,” despite that Disney entry being more prevalent. In all likelihood, there isn't much blind voting going on out there with the honor system in place. And “Mr. Hublot,” a film that would obviously appeal to animators, came out on top. But “Feast” is a much better film than “Get a Horse!,” and, like “Paperman” before it, plays with technology in new and exciting ways. It could indeed be formidable.

But I say watch out for films like “The Dam Keeper” and “Me and My Moulton.” Beginning with the former, at more than 18 minutes, it is far and away the longest of the nominees. As I've written before, it's a fable of sorts about a pig whose duty it is to maintain a large windmill, which keeps poisonous clouds away from a tiny animal village. It becomes a story about acceptance, but it's the technique on display that really stands out. It's pretty jaw-dropping, assembled from over 8,000 paintings, a blend of hand-drawn animation and brush strokes. Directors Robert Kondo and Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, it should be noted, were formerly art directors at Pixar, working on features like “Ratatouille” and “Monsters University.”

But “Me and My Moulton” is also a strong possibility, coming from a former winner in the category, Torill Kove (“The Danish Poet”). This one tells the most conventional and complete story of the five nominees as Kove revisits her childhood with an homage to her family, reflecting on the relationship between parents and children and the inherent disconnect therein. The design is typical Kove, sporting minimalist, singular flourishes within a modest palette. And it is, of course, traditionally animated.

I would call it a race between those three, but I truly love “The Bigger Picture.” I had my fingers crossed it would get in, as it's such a bold combination of varied media, mixing life-sized, wall-painted characters and real objects to tell a story of two brothers struggling to care for their elderly mother. The production commitment is something to behold, and it's worth noting that it is the most laureled of the nominees to date.

Meanwhile, the shortest of the bunch – “A Single Life,” at under three minutes – is certainly refreshing for its brevity. As I've written before, it's the best kind of entry in a race like this: clever, in and out and with a punchline. The main character receives a mysterious vinyl record and discovers that by moving the needle around on the disc, she can move forward and backward in time. But I imagine both of those will struggle to top the others, particularly in a race that isn't necessarily exclusive to voters who come from the world of animation.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsUT0v8Zix8&w=890&h=500]

Continue to the live action shorts on the next page…

On the live action side of the equation, two of this year's nominees stand out as being widely awarded, but they couldn't possibly be any different from one another. Start with what might be the frontrunner, “The Phone Call.” It will be instantly identifiable for voters with well-known actors like Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent (well, his voice, anyway) featured. And as I've written, it would make an interesting double feature with short doc nominee “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” as it finds Hawkins manning the phones at a helpline when Broadbent's suicidal griever rings her up. What plays out is a pretty rich back-and-forth between two talented actors who never share the screen together, but squeeze a ton of empathy and tenderness out of the high-stakes situation. Watch out for this one.

On the other side of the equation is “Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak).” Not at all concerned with narrative, but rather, symbolism and realpolitik, it's a very unique nominee. For 15 minutes, an itinerant photographer shoots Tibetan nomads in front of a series of backdrops, the thematic import of each often speaking for itself – the Great Wall, the Beijing Olympics, Shanghai Disneyland. One instance of an elderly woman transfixed by a backdrop of Potala Palace is particularly humorous. All along you hear the wind whipping and whistling until the final image reveals why that is. It's an abstract curiosity in the fray, but probably too much so to resonate as a winner.

If not “The Phone Call,” I would look to one of the final three entries. The longest of them, “Aya,” is the first short film to be released stand-alone in Israeli commercial cinemas and has its share of kudos coming into the Academy Awards as well. It's built on the strength of actors Sara Adler and Ulrich Tomsen as a two-hander that explores close encounters with temptation, feeding the atmosphere with notes of longing throughout. It's like “The Phone Call” in that it doesn't offer a conventional “narrative” despite having its fair share of drama, which Adler in particular sells very well.

Then there's “Boogaloo and Graham,” notable for being a bit of a “little movie,” telling a full story with an arc, hard to do within these run times. It's a period piece – 1970s Belfast – about a pair of brothers given two young chicks to raise by their father. But when a new baby threatens to change the family's status quo, there are hard decisions to be made about the then-grown chickens. The film zips along with an oldies verve and never focuses on the obvious political unrest surrounding it beyond sprinkling a bit of that flavor here and there. It's a film clearly made with love and I could see it resonating.

Finally, “Parvaneh” has already been awarded by the Academy once: It received the Silver Medal at last year's Student Academy Awards. And it fits in well with zeitgeist considerations, this fish-out-of-water tale of an Afghan immigrant who has to travel to the big city (Zurich) to send money to her ailing father. It's a culture shock story as she befriends a local girl and sees a bit of the world that has been closed off to her. I could see it resonating as well.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2apgVzCZ1Ms&w=890&h=500]

Let's wrap it up with the documentary shorts on the last page…

With the documentary short subject nominees this year, the Academy went small and intimate. They eschewed broader productions like “One Child” and “Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace” in favor of what is still a varied lineup, despite the fact that nearly all the finalists were incredibly sobering in their own ways. Still, I was surprised Lucy Walker's portrait of actress Marianna Palka's plight in “The Lion's Mouth Opens” was left without a nomination.

If I had to guess, and it would definitely be a guess, I would say Aneta Kopacz's “Joanna” is a strong possibility to win here. It has won tons of prizes from all over the world and is just such an intimate, stirring little portrait that it is sure to leave a different feeling than the rest. It's the story of Joanna Salyga, a mother diagnosed with last-stage cancer who documents the mundane day-to-day life details that someone not in her position would of course take for granted. But it's artfully done. It emanates from Andrzej Wadjda's film studio in Poland and, in its final moments, really transcends and dares you not to engage with it emotionally.

But “Joanna” could be undercut a bit by another intimate story of terminal illness. With “Our Curse,” Tomasz Sliwinski has crafted a straight-forward document of his and his wife's experiences dealing with their newborn's rare, incurable disease: Ondine's Curse. Those afflicted stop breathing during sleep and require a lifetime of mechanical ventilation. The way the situation weighs so heavily on the couple instills such empathy and the film plays out as a series of confessionals, Sliwinski and his wife freely disclosing the numbing horrors on their mind. “And this is how it will be for the rest of our life, that gasping sound,” still gets me.

Now, should voters want to keep it lighter, I suppose they could go with “White Earth.” It's hardly “light,” though, as it offers intimate portraits of the people peripherally affected by the North Dakota oil boom (and would make a good double feature with “The Overnighters,” inexplicably snubbed in the documentary feature category this year). It's beautiful, too, with top-notch cinematography, sunsets painting a landscape dolloped by oil rigs. It weaves its way into the broader picture through its chosen microcosm, but whereas “The Overnighters” takes the viewer on a dramatic series of events, “White Earth” is a much more modest story, concerned with naïveté in the poetry of its subjects' narration.

As a subject study, “The Reaper (La Parka)” kind of slips up on you. It feels pretty dry for large stretches, documenting the day-to-day of a Mexican butcher who the film notes has killed about 500 bulls a day, six days a week for over 25 years. It leans on imagery and intriguing shot choices quite a lot, making it a visual essay in many ways. Indeed, it's about six or seven minutes before La Parka himself speaks. But it ultimately leaves an impact, because by trying for poetry with its wordless compositions – all the way through a trip to La Parka's home, where it asks you to sit with him and his family and imagine, if you can, the thoughts he must be silently trying to shake – it truly transcends.

Finally, there's “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.” It's just 17 seconds longer than the 40-minute “Joanna,” making it the longest nominee, and it's unique as well for being a bit of a procedural. But the more I think about it, with a movie like “American Sniper” raising concerns of veteran post-traumatic stress disorder (and considering the film's startling statistics: U.S. vets commit suicide at a rate of nearly one per hour, and more have killed themselves since 2001 than have died on the battlefield), this could be set up as a potential winner. The film follows a number of the individuals who man the phones of the Veterans Crisis Line in upstate New York, and it can be nerve-racking to watch them work through breakdowns with their callers, contacting local law enforcement and essentially talking people off the proverbial ledge. The viewer is brought into a number of these situations to observe protocol, hanging on every line when it appears a caller is unresponsive, etc. The filmmakers cut in and out of these situations, the drama crescendoing throughout, the relief palpable when operators resolve a crisis. It could be the one.

So that's a look at the shorts categories from someone who's seen all of the nominees, and I still don't know with any confidence which way things will fall. Once voters begin to get a look at the screeners, maybe we'll have a better idea, but tentatively, I'd say: “The Dam Keeper, “The Phone Call” and “Joanna.”

You'll be able to get a look at each of these films yourself when ShortsHD once again brings the wildly popular Oscar Nominated Short Film program to theaters later this month. The program will open in over 350 theaters throughout the US and Canada on Jan. 30 and will land on VOD in February.

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