I’ve spent a chunk of this week watching the Oscar nominees in the shorts categories. I used to be just about the only one to screen these nominees (including Academy members). But for the last few years, a savvy indie distributor has been collecting them into a feature-length theatrical release (this year’s hits select cities on Jan. 30) and many of the shorts are also available on VOD in the weeks before the ceremony.
The shorts are no longer a closely guarded secret — which is great for the nominees, and for movie fans, but makes the job of Oscarologists much trickier. The Academy never discloses just how many people vote in each category, but it’s widely assumed that the numbers in the shorts categories are pretty small — especially before last year, when members started getting screeners sent to them for the very first time. (Before that, Academy members had to drag themselves to an official screening in a theater to vote on the shorts.) So while you could once guess that the voting pool was small, now you can’t be quite as certain who’s casting a ballot.
I need to confess something upfront: In terms of predicting what live action short director will go to the podium on Oscar night, my track record is little better than the roll of a five-sided die (if such a thing exists). If there’s a Holocaust film, even one as treacly as 2008’s Toyland, that’s a safe bet. (There are none this year.) But otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be any discernible pattern: The Academy has gone for bloody Tarantino-esque shorts like Martin McDonagh’s 2005 thriller Six Shooter, heartstring-tugging yarns about European kids (2007’s Le Mozart des Pickpockets), and whimsical fantasies like last year’s Helium.
My favorite this year was Michael Lennox’s Boogaloo and Graham, about two boys in 1978 Belfast whose underemployed dad gives them each a young chick to raise. It’s Irish (like two other winners in the last decade); it’s got button-cute kids; and there’s a bit of a narrative twist toward the end.
Two of the nominees center on young women who forge improbable connections with outsiders. In Aya, an Israeli woman (Sarah Adler) waiting at an airport is mistaken for a car-service driver by an arriving Danish man (Banshee‘s Ulrich Thomsen), the judge in a piano competition. She puckishly decides not to correct him and go along with the ruse, loading his suitcase into the overstuffed backseat of her hatchback and embarking on an increasingly flirtatious conversation over the course of a very long drive into Jerusalem. None of this seems vaguely plausible, though it’s very well acted. In Parvaneh, we meet a headscarfed Afghan teenager who works odd jobs as a seamstress in rural Switzerland. She heads to Zurich hoping to send money home for her father’s medical bills, only to encounter bureaucratic obstacles and an overly entitled tattooed teenage girl who agrees to help Parvaneh but only for a cut of the money. Newcomer Nissa Kashani, in the title role, has a wonderfully expressive face — but the script is rather by-the-numbers with an all-too-pat ending.
La Lampe au Beurre de Yak (Butter Lamp) offers a slice-of-life look at a traveling photographer shooting Tibetan family portraits. It’s a snapshot of rural China in transition but I suspect a little too plotless and esoteric to claim the top prize. The final contender is also the starriest: The Phone Call, featuring Sally Hawkins as a shy worker at a suicide hotline in the U.K. who fields a call from a highly depressed widower (voiced by Jim Broadbent) who only gradually reveals the source of his troubles. The film shows a lot of talent — we never actually see Broadbent despite cutaway pans of his home and the clock on his pristine white mantel — but the plot is pretty thin, especially in comparison to the similarly themed, dramatically more compelling documentary short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (a front-runner to win in that category this year).
Now you may scoff and say this category just doesn’t matter, but there’s some precedent for the award serving as a calling card for young auteurs. Notable winners include French director Claude Berri (for 1965’s Le Poulet); future An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray helmer Taylor Hackford (for 1978’s Teenage Father); current Dr. Who Peter Capaldi (whose Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life split the 1994 prize in a rare tie); Christine Lahti (1995’s Lieberman in Love); future GalaxyQuest director Dean Parisot (who shared his Oscar with co-writer Steven Wright for 1998’s The Appointments of Dennis Jennings); and In the Name of the Father helmer Terry George (for 2011’s The Shore).
My pick for this year? Probably Boogaloo and Graham, which is sweet without being saccharine, but I could see Parvaneh or even Aya sneaking in there.