If the movies we honor at awards season reflect the prevailing zeitgeist, then we’re all in a funk.
Among this year’s slate of Oscar-nominated short films, the prevailing mood is, if not overtly grim, certainly reflective and thoughtful.
Take the animated shorts. Usually this category is good for at least one gut-bustingly funny entry. This year’s nominees, though, are overwhelmingly somber. The lightest of the bunch is Pixar/Disney’s “Piper,” a charmer about a baby bird.
(It’s worth noting that three of the five animation nominees feature virtually no dialogue. Maybe it’s Oscar giving us a respite from a noisy election year.)
The live-action and animated shorts debut this week at the Tivoli Cinemas, in separate programs. Documentary shorts open there Feb. 17.
Of the live-action shorts, two deal with the hot topic of immigration and refugees. Things will be even more focused in the documentary program, where three nominees are about immigration and/or the war in Syria, and one is about end-of-life ethics.
That said, the overall quality of these short efforts is spectacular, particularly with the live-action and documentary slates. They’re listed with my favorites on top of each section.
Animated shorts ☆☆☆
(Not rated. Time: 1:27.)
▪ “Pearl” (USA)
Remember the opening sequence of Pixar’s “Up” depicting the romance and marriage of the main character? Patrick Osborne’s “Pearl” does something like that to depict the title character’s coming of age.
Pearl is a little girl traveling the country with her hippie/troubadour father, living out of a car. We see snatches from her childhood. Her father gives up his guitar dreams and settles down. There are father-daughter fights. Eventually a teenage Pearl breaks away and launches her own rock band. In a sense her father’s dream has come full circle. Again, with almost no dialogue, “Pearl” is a sweet and sad yarn of generational aspiration told in a wildly original visual style.
▪ “Borrowed Time” (USA)
An Old West lawman revisits the site of a traumatic incident from his youth and recalls his part in the death of a colleague. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj’s all-but-wordless film has a few moments of spectacular action (a high-speed stagecoach wreck), but mostly it is a quiet, evocative meditation on grief, told through spectacular three-dimensional computer animation.
▪ “Piper” (USA)
This Disney/Pixar effort — it played in theaters last summer with “Finding Dory — is a wordless (naturally) story of a young sandpiper learning to fend for itself along a seashore. In many regards it is classic Disney, a tale of an impossibly fuzzy young animal learning survival techniques through often comedic trial and error. The film’s depiction of our hero’s environment — sand, waves, sky — is astonishing realistic. “Piper” often teeters on the edge of terminal cuteness, but the brilliant animation keeps it on track.
▪ “Blind Vaysha” (Canada)
Theodore Ushev’s Slavic folk tale is about a girl with an unusual condition: Her left eye shows her the past while her right eye displays the future. Because she cannot see the here and now, Vaysha is, for practical purposes, blind. She finds herself wondering which is better: living in the comfort of the past or the dangers of the future.
Here’s what makes “Vaysha” special: The entire film has been rendered in what appear to be animated woodblock prints. The effect is haunting.
▪ “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” (Canada and UK)
Robert Valley’s animated memoir depicts the life and death of his high school buddy Techno, a superb athlete and daredevil who descends into debilitating alcoholism.
Valley first told the story in self-published graphic novels, and that shows in the film’s innovative artwork depicting Techno’s downward spiral — cures, relapses, a stint in a Japanese hospital for a liver transplant. Much of the film is in black and white, but splashes of color highlight important moments.
“Pear Cider” is about the links that hold old friends together even when common sense tells us it’s time to break away.
The film is 35 minutes long but packs in so much information it feels like a feature. (Note: “Pear Cider and Cigarettes” contains adult language and situations and is not recommended for children. It’s the last film shown in the animation program, and families will have time to clear out.)
The animation program has been rounded out with three non-competing short films. They are:
▪ “The Head Vanishes” is about a woman with dementia who is determined to make her annual train trip to the seaside.
▪ “Asteria” follows two astronauts who make an unexpected discovery on a barren planet.
▪ “Happy End” is described as “a black comedy about death … with a happy ending.”
Live action ☆☆☆ 1/2
(Not rated. Time: 2:14.)
▪ “La Femme et la TGV” (Switzerland)
Timo von Gunten’s late-in-life romance is a bittersweet triumph about a lonely woman, Elise (Jane Birkin, once one of the iconic faces of ’60s “Swingin’ London”), who lives along a railway near a provincial Swiss town.
Elise runs a once-famous bakery that is now down to one customer. Her only friend is her parakeet. And her greatest joy is waving a Swiss flag at the TGV train that every morning zips past her house at nearly 200 miles per hour.
This gentle film chronicles a long-distance/high speed romance between Elise and the unseen driver of the train, a fellow named Bruno who tosses notes and gifts (usually homemade cheese) onto Elise’s lawn as he passes.
At a time when her son wants to put her in a retirement home, her correspondence with Bruno gives Elise a new enthusiasm for life.
▪ “Sing” (Hungary)
You’re never too young to fight for what you believe is right. That’s the upshot of Kristof Deak’s “Sing,” a touching tale of a mini revolution in a Hungarian elementary school that will leave audiences grinning.
Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi) is the new girl at a school famous for its award-winning children’s choir. Since it is school policy that any student can participate, she signs on.
But after the first rehearsal Zsofi is approached by the choirmaster, Miss Erika (Zsofia Szamosi), who advises her, ever so sweetly but firmly, that in the future she should only mouth the words.
Zsofi is crushed. So her new best friend, Liza (Dorka Hais), one of the choir’s soloists, comes up with a sneaky plan to sabotage Miss Erika’s system.
Terrific acting by the three principal players and an insightful screenplay add up to one deeply satisfying experience.
▪ “Silent Nights” (Denmark)
Set in frigid Copenhagen at Christmastime, Aske Bang’s “Silent Nights” is a heart-breaker about a brief love affair between a young woman volunteer at a soup kitchen and a homeless African immigrant.
Both have their problems. Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) left Ghana to make money for his impoverished family. He finds that for all the liberality of Danish society, racism and prejudice are facts of life. Survival may mean stealing.
Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) is a quiet, unremarkable woman with an open heart and an alcoholic, racist mother. Their relationship is simultaneously tragic and inspiring. Life changes, love comes and goes. Take it while you can.
▪ “Timecode” (Spain)
Filmmaker Juanjo Gimenez Pena sure knows how to breathe life into a dead-end, life-sucking job.
Luna (Lali Ayguade) is a uniformed security guard working the 12-hour day shift in a Madrid parking garage. Hers is a boring gig. No wonder she never shows any emotion. But then on video surveillance recordings she finds footage of her nighttime counterpart, Diego (Nicolas Ricchini), using the garage as his own private dance studio.
Leaving notes for each other indicating specific cameras and times, Luna and Diego initiate a romance that consists only of solo dances, recorded when nobody else is around and meant only for each other.
It’s a delightful idea, done almost wordlessly, and the results are intoxicating.
▪ “Enemies Within” (France)
The calm surface of Selim Aazzazi’s film cannot hide an almost volcanic anger and angst.
The Petitioner (Hassam Ghancy), an Algerian teacher who has lived all his life in France, has come to a drab government office to apply for citizenship. The film consists almost entirely of his tense conversation with the Interrogator (Najib Oudghiri), a young man who will study his case and make a recommendation.
What at first seems like standard procedure soon turns dark as the utterly unemotional Interrogator asks ever more intrusive questions about the Petitioner: his religion, his family history and any links to terrorism. He demands the names of the Petitioner’s friends from a mosque, threatening to reject the application and start deportation proceedings if they aren’t forthcoming.
“Enemies Within” delves deep into the Petitioner’s crisis of conscience. Should he inform on friends he believes are innocent? At the same time Aazzazi’s film lays bare the brute coercive power of the state. Talk about timely.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.