2015 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live-Action, by Craig Schroeder
It’s a pretty base fantasy to want to go where we don’t belong and imagine a life that isn’t ours. The titular character in “Aya” does just that, posing as a driver in an airport when she picks up her unsuspecting passenger. But Aya’s bizarre decision is motivated not out of curiosity, but loneliness and regret. And “Aya” takes a base human instinct and makes it the basis of a poignant character study.
The film begins with Aya (Sarah Adler), an Israeli woman, reluctantly waiting (for whom remains a mystery) amongst a gaggle of limo drivers in an airport terminal. When one driver asks Aya to momentarily hold a sign signaling a Mr. Overby, Aya obliges. But when Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), a music scholar heading to Jerusalem on business, arrives and sensibly mistakes Aya as his driver, she doesn’t correct him. Instead, she drives him. Both Adler and Thomsen are brilliant in their respective performances. Each actor brings gravitas and an unspoken history to the characters that makes the relationship between two strangers vital and alive. Co-directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis don’t uncork a lot of flash or style, instead choosing to let the weight of their film rest within the pages of their heartbreaking and often funny screenplay.
Though not my favorite, “Aya” seems like the kind of film to scratch the Academy’s thinly-veiled-socio-political-metaphor itch. With a definite possibility of winning the night, if the Oscars were an Olympic event, “Aya” would podium at the very least.
Boogaloo and Graham
“Booglaoo and Graham,” a beautifully shot, feel-good short from director Michael Lennox, is neutered by its subservient devotion to saccharine childhood nostalgia. When two young boys–brothers living with their mother and father in Belfast during The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s–take in two chickens (the titular Boogaloo and Graham), the new pets threaten to upset the changing familial balance. Though well-acted and gorgeous (Mark Garrett’s cinematography earns the film its highest marks), “Boogaloo and Graham” is simply too precious to make any substantial impression.
“Boogaloo and Graham” has a lot to say, but doesn’t seem persuaded by its own convictions. Themes range from ethical eating to the upset of family dynamics to the bond between brothers to The Troubles in 1970s Ireland. But all of these themes feel like story affectations rather than actual themes, used to established context to a story that is yet to be finished. Like latter-career Rob Reiner, “Boogaloo and Graham” examines a cogent event through an all too genial lens; there’s nothing to really rally against, but there’s not a whole lot to champion either.
Butter Lamp (La lampe au beurre de yak)
The most provocative of all the nominated shorts, Wei Hu’s “Butter Lamp” (or “La lampe au beurre de yak”) is a lean piece of avant-garde filmmaking. Consisting of several long, stagnant shots, the fifteen minute film shows a Tibetan photographer in various vignettes as he corrals and instructs different families as they pose for a photograph in front of washed-out backdrops of famous Chinese and south-Asian landmarks.
If you didn’t know any better, “Butter Lamp” could be confused for a documentary. There isn’t a lot of narrative form to the film, some of the vignettes connect and some don’t. But there is something wonderful and oddly compelling about the film. Beginning with the most incendiary image–a docile Tibetan family posing in front of a Tiananmen Square backdrop, with the infamous portrait of Mao Zedong looming ominously behind them–the families being photographed become more contentious as the backgrounds become more pliant. On the surface, the film seems to be an abstract response to Tibet’s disputable relationship with China, but there is so much packed in this simple film it would be doing it a disservice to describe it merely as a piece of coy commentary.
If the Academy has proven anything this year it’s that the status quo rules the day. So I’m kind of surprised to see a film as delightfully weird and subtle as “Butter Lamp” even get a nod. But given the Academy’s proclivity to steer away from the bizarre and inventive, I’m predicting a nod is all “Butter Lamp” will get come February 22nd. Which is a shame; as it is the best of the five nominated shorts.
The amount of money American Sniper has made in its January release is simply incredible. It’s great to see people going to the movies again (after a year of record-lows), but it is a total bummer that the movie that resuscitated the box office is as dumb and misinformed as American Sniper. “Parvaneh,” the short film from Talkhon Hamzavi, is a beautiful story of self-discovery and what it means to be an innocent in an age of war. And with films like Sniper operating under a “white people good, brown people bad” mentality, “Parvaneh” should be required viewing to wash away the jingoistic stink and humanize the people who are thrust into chaos.
“Parvaneh” is a delicate examination of culture, femininity and friendship. Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) is a teenager from Afghanistan living in a transit center after escaping the war in the Middle East and taking asylum in Switzerland. She is alone and is discovering a culture completely idiosyncratic to the one she grew up with. She removes her head covering in public, drinks and even puts on lip-stick. When she learns that her father, still living in Afghanistan, has become ill, she decides to send him what little money she has. Unable to send the money without a valid passport, Parvaneh recruits a young Swiss girl, a privileged white kid with demons all her own.
“Parvaneh” isn’t a perfect film but it’s entering the American zeitgeist at an important moment. And though I’m rooting for “Butter Lamp” to win the category, “Parvaneh” has the best shot at winning. And given the fact that every Best Picture nomination can be described as “A man who…”, it would be nice to see a female-led film take home the award.
The Phone Call
Can anyone give me one good goddamn reason why Sally Hawkins isn’t a household name?! Charm, talent for days and a grin that could make Morrissey smile, it seems insane that she isn’t a superstar. And “The Phone Call,” though directed by Matt Kirby, is without-a-doubt Sally Hawkins’ film. And she doesn’t disappoint.
Taking place in one location and mostly in real-time, “The Phone Call” follows Heather (Hawkins), a suicide hot-line operator (Hawkins), as she attempts to persuade an elderly widower named Stan (voiced wonderfully by Jim Broadbent) to call an ambulance after taking a bottle of pills. It is odd to call a film that is about a man actively killing himself optimistic, but “The Phone Call” has such a reverence for life that the entire film is just soaked in hope. Even if Heather can’t save Stan, it feels good knowing people like her exist.
There’s not a whole lot of artistic flourish to the film or screenplay; which is quite fine given that Hawkins is putting on a showcase. But the third act (all things being relative, as this is a twenty minute film) begins to collapse on itself. Featuring a Sally Hawkins-less final sequence, the climax kills the momentum built up by the preceding eighteen minutes and the finale doesn’t pack the punch that Kirby and co-writer James Lucas may have imagined. But that’s okay, because the slightly disappointing finale isn’t enough to overshadow Hawkins’ brilliant performance.