Thursday, February 16, 2017

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Live Action Short

Hungarian film Sing is nominated for Best Live Action Short.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day leading up to the ceremony for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories and more.

Best Live Action Short

The nominees are:

Ennemis Intérieurs
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights

Oscar season is my favorite time of year, and my favorite part of the season, apart from the ceremony itself, is the opportunity to see these wonderful nominated short films in theaters. Every year, the live action, animated, and documentary shorts cited here amaze with their technical wizardry, their storytelling brilliance, and their wonderful craftsmanship.

After a run of five out of six years in which an English-language film has taken home this award, not one of this year’s nominees is in English, happily opening up the category to the best of world cinema. Unlike in recent years, when the quality of these nominees has been consistent across the board, this year, I feel, features films with a greater disparity between the best and the rest. The first three films discussed here are all tremendous, and any would make a fine winner. The last two are more problematic for reasons outlined below. Regardless, this year’s group is as exciting as ever, so let’s dive in.

Sing – Director Kristóf Déak’s drama about friendship, loyalty, corruption, and protest in a Hungarian children’s choir is the most complete film of these five. The script, which Déak co-wrote with Bex Harvey and Christian Azzola, carefully lays in everything we need to know about these girls and their world without hitting you over the head with it.

The subtle writing and tender direction are the perfect instruments to tell the story of Zsófi (Dóra Gáspárvalvi), who joins the school choir but is told to pantomime by the bully choir director Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi). Zsófi, devastated, goes along with this order until her new best friend, Liza (Dorka Hais), one of the best singers in school, learns of the indignity. Liza is appalled, and together, the friends form a plot to right this wrong.

The performances by the two young actresses Gáspárvalvi and Hais are stellar and perfectly evoke the feelings of youthful friendship and camaraderie. As you would expect, the use of music throughout is wonderful, capturing the spirit of these girls and channeling childlike joie de vivre. Déak’s stealthy and purposeful directions draws viewers in and sets them up for the film’s climactic confrontation. Though each of these nominees has its own virtues, Sing is the only one among them I would call a perfect film in miniature.

La Femme et le TGV – All that said, to pick one of these for the win, to determine which the Academy might go for, I would have to bet on this sweet chocolate truffle of a film. La Femme et le TGV stars the inimitable actress and performer Jane Birkin as a woman who wakes up bright and early every day to wave happily to the high-speed commuter train that passes by and rattles her house. She begins a pen-pal relationship with the train’s conductor, who drops letters and packages of cheese out the window of the train at 200 miles per hour. This relationship spurs her to break out of her shell and take on the world with renewed passion and vigor.

Swiss writer-director Timo von Gunten crafts a wonderful confectionary delight with this film, showing what happens when we let our routines control us and the wonders that can take place when we finally break those routines. Birkin is as tremendous as you would expect in the role of Elise, who has kept herself guarded so long it shocks her entire community to see her transformation. When the film deals her a decidedly low-key but cruel twist, we are pleased to see her dust herself off and carry on, stronger than perhaps she has ever been.

Von Gunten’s direction is simply lovely, and of all the nominees, this certainly feels the most like a big Hollywood production, the presence of Birkin in the central role only adding to that sensation. The obvious production value, the big star, and the sweet, well-told story all add up to the kind of film that can win big in this category.

Timecode – The Palme d’Or winner for best short film at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Juanjo Giménez Peña’s sweet, inventively told romance follows the story of two lonely security guards who discover a surprising connection. To reveal that connection would be to spoil much of the film’s charm and heart, so I will say only that it all builds to one of the funniest closing lines of any movie this year. The romance is played beautifully by actors Lali Ayguadé and Nicolas Ricchini, and Peña’s direction is consistently amusing and wonderful.

At 15 minutes, this is the shortest film in the bunch, but it is also one of the most satisfying. The way Peña builds to the climax through repeated shot setups and small visual cues is masterful, and when the film finally breaks form, it is electrifying. A couple of the other nominated films are more topical and a couple are better produced, but for crowd-pleasing entertainment told with a fresh, exciting visual style, it would be hard to beat Timecode.

Ennemis Intérieurs – The most clunky and least cinematic offering in this group, this nevertheless is the most politically charged and socially relevant film cited here. Writer-director Selim Azzazi’s Ennemis Intérieurs, which means literally “Internal Enemies,” concerns a French-Algerian man applying for French citizenship and the government official tasked with his “extreme vetting,” to use the parlance of our time. The man, known only as the applicant (Hassam Ghancy), is questioned about his loyalty to France, his respect for French values, and his ties to the Muslim community.

The film is set almost entirely within two interrogation rooms, aside from a couple artful flashbacks, and consists mostly of the interrogator (Najib Oudghiri) trying to break down the applicant, to push and prod him until his dignity and sense of self have been eroded. It is sickening to watch, and you and I both know such things and much worse are happening right now in this country, which is disgusting. It is an affront to basic human decency, and Azzazi does not so much dramatize it for us as make it real. For what it lacks in cinematic value and subtly, it more than makes up in timeliness and relevance.

Silent Nights – Here is a well-made film with its heart in the right place that I simply cannot endorse. Director-co-writer Aske Bang wants to tell a story about overcoming prejudice and finding connections where we least expect them, both noble goals. Unfortunately, he also engages and depicts every negative stereotype about immigrants he can think of and mixes it with a healthy dose of white saviorism. A movie that for most its 30-minute run time is a charming story about two people from wildly different backgrounds finding love becomes uncomfortable to watch in its closing passages thanks to its inelegant plotting and muddled political message.

Salvation Army volunteer Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) meets homeless Ghanaian immigrant Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) and the two instantly connect. After their courtship is derailed by Kwame’s life in Ghana, the film kicks into full white-savior mode with Inger coming to Kwame’s rescue. On top of this, Kwame is shown multiple times to be a thief, an opportunist, and a liar, immigrant stereotypes that serve only to reinforce prejudices. There is the hint of a good idea here, and the filmmakers, including producer and two-time Oscar winner Kim Magnussesn, clearly have the best intentions. One only wishes those intentions had translated into a better movie.

The final analysis

Any of these could win. It just depends on what kind of mood the voters are in. They could choose to reward the zeitgeist-capturing social relevance of Ennemis Intérieurs or Silent Nights, or they could go with the well-crafted, well-told professionalism of Sing, La Femme et le TGV, or Timecode. My best guess is the latter will rule the day, particularly the glossy shimmer of La Femme et Le TGV.

Will win: La Femme et le TGV
Should win: Sing

Tomorrow: Best Animated Feature

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