Monday, February 16, 2015

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Live Action Short

Sarah Adler stars in the Best Live Action Short nominee Aya.

Each day as we make our way to the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 22, Last Cinema Standing will take an in-depth look at each of the categories, sorting out the highs, the lows, and everything in between. Check back right here for analysis, predictions, and gripes as we inch toward the Dolby Theater and that world-famous red carpet.

Best Live Action Short

The nominees are:

Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp
The Phone Call

Among my favorite things each Oscar season are the three shorts categories for live action, animated, and documentary short films. Every year, these pictures show the kind of ambition, energy, and poignancy that truth be told, is often lacking in their long-form brethren. The international scope of these categories opens up the field to vital new voices from around the cinematic globe and gives viewers the chance to see the world from a different perspective, if only briefly.

The live-action shorts in particular have always been a hotbed of interesting ideas and innovative approaches to filmmaking. The Academy Awards have recognized some of the brightest stars in this category, as well as some of the most promising newcomers. Walt Disney himself won this award six times in his remarkable career, including four consecutive times from 1950 to 1953.

Famed producer-director Hal Roach, known for his work with Harold Lloyd, as well as for producing the Little Rascals and Our Gang shorts, won the first incarnation of this award in 1932. Taylor Hackford, director of An Officer and a Gentleman and Ray, won for his short Teenage Father in 1978. More recently, Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) launched their feature-film careers with wins in this category in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Of course, there is no guarantee this year’s filmmakers will enjoy similar success, but it will not be for lack of trying or lack of talent. As much as either of those, timing and luck play a major part in who makes it and who does not in the movie business. An Academy Award, however, will hopefully serve as the necessary encouragement to press on in the face of any obstacles. I, for one, will be first in line for the next feature film by any among this talented group.

The Phone Call (directed by Mat Kirkby) – You are probably looking at your winner here. Starring Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins and Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent, The Phone Call stands out as feeling the most like a big Hollywood-style production, and it benefits from having the most straightforwardly emotional storyline. Hawkins plays Heather, who works at a crisis hotline, and Broadbent plays “Stan,” who calls the center. Deceptively simple, the plot plays out like a ticking-clock thriller as Heather senses she may have the chance to save a life.

Despite the big stars and high production values, Kirkby keeps the visual tap dancing to a minimum, which puts the focus squarely on the two characters and the phone call. This is not to say there is not style to spare, but Kirkby has an innate feel for when to deploy a flashy camera move or cross cut and for when to step back and let his story and his actors carry the day. If this indeed wins the Oscar, it will make a handsome winner to be sure.

Aya (directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis) – That having been said, this is my favorite of the live action nominees. A two-hander in the truest sense, it reminds of Richard Linklater’s great Before trilogy or Abbas Kiarostami’s recent Certified Copy. Sarah Adler plays Aya, a woman whose life is unsatisfying in a way she cannot explain, but she holds out hope that at any time, anything can happen. And so, it does. By happenstance, she ends up posing as the hired driver for a stranger (Mr. Overby, played by Ulrich Thomsen) at the airport. She takes him to his destination, and they talk.

What they say is not nearly as important as how they say it, how they connect to one another, and how Aya’s passenger’s comes to understand just what it is she needs and might be missing from her life. These are lonely people but not because they are alone in life. Their loneliness stems from an inability to feel close to anyone or anything. Whether they know it or not, they both need this break in routine, this spontaneous connection to another human being.

Running 39 minutes, this is the longest nominee in the category by far, and it uses every minute to build the distance these two feel, not only from each other but from the world at large. The vast expanse of open land they pass as they drive only accentuates this feeling. They are stranded in an emotional desert and have nothing to cling to but each other. So, for this brief moment in time, two lost souls find what they need as they circle around each other until the gravity between them becomes too much, and they collide.

Butter Lamp (directed by Wei Hu) – A structurally daring experiment, the true subject of Hu’s minimalist Butter Lamp is not revealed until the awe-inspiring final moments. The premise is as simple as it is brilliant. A photographer sets up shop for families and community groups to come have their picture taken. His assistant shuffles through fake backdrops that place the subjects anywhere they want, from the Great Wall of China to a tropical beach.

The camera never moves, save for those last few seconds, and even then, it is a simple slow push in on an object of great importance, not to the story but to one of the characters. That is what makes Butter Lamp so beautiful. It is not about plot. It is about people and the importance of family, faith, community, and heritage. The photographer drops in only for fleeting moments of his subjects’ lives. The true depths of their experiences only exist outside the frame – a ready metaphor for filmmaking itself. He captures just the artifice, but within that, there still exists something real.

Boogaloo and Graham (directed by Michael Lennox) – The shortest of the set is also the most downright enjoyable. Set against the backdrop of Catholic-Protestant tensions in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s, Boogaloo and Graham tells the story of two young brothers whose father gives them a pair of chickens as pets.

The film is told entirely from the children’s perspective, which means the fully armed soldiers being trucked through town are just another part of the scenery. They represent the threat of real-world violence always lurking in the background, something the two boys would barely be able to comprehend, especially when their mother is threatening much more immediate violence against their beloved chickens.

Writer Ronan Blaney draws some interesting parallels between masculinity and violence, and there is a nice contrast between the boys’ kind-hearted soft touch of a father and their more hardened, pragmatic mother. The dialogue is funny, and the filmmaking is solid, though the overall effect feels slight when compared to the four other nominated films.

Parvaneh (directed by Talkhon Hamzavi) – Parvaneh is a teenage girl who could be from anywhere. She is shy, determined, and bright, but she is trapped by her circumstances. Living on her own in a transit center for asylum seekers in the Swiss Alps, she earns meager wages to send back to her family in Afghanistan but has no way to send the money. She overhears two men talking about a Western Union in Zurich where she can send money home.

When she is told she is too young, she enlists the help of a wealthy Swiss girl who seems to have problems of her own.They spend an eventful night together in Zurich and realize they have more in common than they might have thought. As lessons go, this is pretty well-worn territory, but the film is shot through with energy and empathy, crafting a well told story about two young people lost in a world that has neither the time nor the inclination to notice them.

The final analysis

The Phone Call has two major advantages simply by being in English and starring two Hollywood stars who already have Academy approval. Voters in this category tend to like films that pack an emotional punch, a quality The Phone Call has in spades. Boogaloo and Graham recently won the short film award from the British Academy of Television and Arts, but it was also the only one of these nominees also cited there. Ultimately, it would be surprising if anything but The Phone Call ends up with this award.

Will win: The Phone Call
Should win: Aya

No comments: