After whetting your appetite last week, here’s the main event: this year’s Academy Award-nominated short subjects. This time I’ll focus on the animated and live action categories (playing as separate programs at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning on Friday, Feb. 10). If all goes as planned, the documentaries will get their moment in the sun next week.
Animation first, and as usual I’ll start out with the films I consider least likely to win. Borrowed Time and Pearl both plow similar nostalgic ground: the former via an Old West tale of family loyalty and regret, the latter through a rose-tinted vision of music industry success. Borrowed Time’s ugly CGI animation and flat story left me particularly unimpressed, while Pearl looks and sounds like a car commercial.
It wouldn’t be the animated category without a Pixar representative, and this year it’s Piper — which might just as well have been entitled Totes Adorbs. Telling the story of a newborn seabird’s struggle to achieve a measure of self-sufficiency, it’s lovely to look at, completely delightful, and as much commerce as art.
The category’s most daring entry is Blind Vaysha, an impressionistic examination of the life of a young girl who sees the past through her right eye and the future through her left. The film suggests her inability to see things as they really are is a “disability” we all suffer from; should Blind Vaysha win it’ll be the National Film Board of Canada’s seventh Animation Oscar since 1977.
At 34 minutes in length, Pear Cider and Cigarettes is by far the longest of this year’s nominees. Biographical in nature, the film looks at the life of a committed hell-raiser through the eyes of a friend hoping to save him from himself. Not suitable for children, Pear Cider and Cigarettes will screen last after a brief auditorium-clearing intermission; it’s the clear favorite with Blind Vaysha and Piper coming up on the outside.
As usual, length is more uniform in the live-action category – of the five nominees, only one clocks in at less than 25 minutes and the longest is half an hour. The shortest film, Timecode, runs a brief ten minutes and its shallow story of dancing parking attendants won’t win it any friends among Academy voters.
My major concern about Sing (Mindenki) was whether or not it would be worse than last year’s similarly titled musical cartoon, which I suffered through at the behest of a young relative over the holiday season. Happily, it’s better: there are no singing animals, just singing Hungarian youngsters eager to send their over-competitive teacher a pointed message. It’s the sort of film Britain’s Children’s Film Foundation churned out in the 1970s – which, if you’re wondering, is a good thing.
There are two love stories in the running: Switzerland’s La Femme et le TGV, featuring a lovely performance by Jane Birkin as a lonely woman whose long-distance relationship with a railway employee is all for naught, and Denmark’s Silent Nights, in which a Salvation Army volunteer falls for a penniless Ghanaian immigrant. Both films are absurd and unbelievable (are there still such chocolate box villages in the Swiss Alps?), but Silent Nights’ ability to tug at liberal Hollywood heartstrings probably moves it into award contention.
Head and shoulders above the rest is Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within), in which a French-Algerian man’s 1996 citizenship interview rapidly turns into an interrogation. Written and directed by newcomer Selim Azzazi, it offers trenchant and timely commentary on loyalty, patriotism, nationalism, racism, and Islamophobia — and should be this year’s winner.