For decades, now, the office Oscar pool has been won or lost by whomever can score an uneducated guess in the three Short Film categories: Animated, Live-Action and Documentary. But this year’s fifteen nominees are not only worth your effort to see, they exemplify the raw artistic canvas of film as only the short-film medium can. And, thanks to Film Scene, Iowa City’s resident art-house theatre, they are also accessible, screening now through Thursday, Feb. 23.
The animated category provides the most palatable playlist for the general audience, with a few key exceptions. Whether by chance, or by design, the five Animated Short Film nominees share a common theme of life’s ever-moving cycle: children taking their first steps, relationships with parents, that friend who never leaves your heart. The foot-tapping, loose style of Pearl will resonate with parents as a man watches his child grow, change, leave and come back, all through song and an old car. The dark fable of Blind Vaysha is probably the weakest link with its old fashioned story of a girl who can see the past through one eye and the future through the other. The point is heavy handed, but the art is a stunning swirl of movement and paint strokes.
Pixar brings two very different films to the category this year, first with Piper, a touching “leaving the nest” story of a small bird, a tiny crab, the ocean and the beautiful world that awaits. As far as animation goes, its photo-realistic style is unmatched. Pixar’s second outing is the uncharacteristically dark western Borrowed Time, a bleak and gritty tale of survival and regret. It feels a little clipped; I’d certainly welcome more padding on the slim seven minute runtime, but it was a sucker punch I didn’t expect and is the one that has stuck with me the most.
But if you’re looking to score in the aforementioned office pool, place your bets on Canada’s Pear Cider and Cigarettes. A flashy anime style propels what is an otherwise straightforward tale into mythology-level mayhem. It more than triples the length of its peers at 35 minutes long, but the extra time feels more self-indulgent than necessary. Parents beware: This final film is not for your little ones and there will be a warning before it screens in order for you to exit the theater. Otherwise the whole program runs 87 minutes (there are two additional, shortlisted films not screened for review) and suitable for ages 8 and up, except for Pear Cider and Cigarettes.
Animated Shorts run: Wed., Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. | Thu., Feb. 16 at 10 p.m. | Fri., Feb. 17 at 3 & 10:15 p.m. | Sat., Feb 18 at 10:15 p.m. | Sun., Feb. 19 at 11:30 a.m. & 7:45 p.m. | Mon, Feb. 20 at 3:30 p.m. | Tue., Feb. 21 at 6:30 p.m. | Thu., Feb. 23 at 10 p.m. | TICKETS
The Live-Action nominees are thematically tied through their various forms of communication: two strangers send love letters to each other, co workers communicate through videotaped dance, an officer interrogates a man he suspects of terrorism. The emotions run high with the five impressive nominees, all of which are predominantly subtitled, with Silent Nights being partially in English.
Silent Nights is also the bottom of the pile as the story of a Danish girl who volunteers at a homeless shelter and falls in love with one of its tenants, an African immigrant trying to make money to send home to his wife and children. The leads are likable, but the characterizations are frustrating and the time within the film passes so quickly, it’s easy to think it’d make a better full-length film, then a short. Time Code is a likable, but mostly forgettable, love story of two Spanish security officers at a parking garage who send each other silent, dance-filled, messages through the security camera footage.
The two French films in the mix are the sweet and affecting La Femme et la TGV, following an elderly woman who has a love affair through letters she trades with a man she has never met, who passes her house every day by train, and Ennemis Interieurs, a powerful and timely film of a French officer interrogating a Muslim man who has applied for citizenship in France despite having already lived there his entire life. The latter is tense and frustrating, but not one-sided — a challenging and simple piece of work that is all too relevant to our current times and has a solid shot at taking home the gold.
Its biggest competition comes in the Hungarian film Sing, a triumphant tale of an elementary school choir where the tyrannical teacher only lets the talented children sing. The kids are charming, and the teacher vile, but the defiant climax is the most fist-pounding moment this side of Whiplash and is sure to be the one audiences leave talking about. The program runs 134 minutes and is suitable for ages 15 and over.
Live-Action Shorts run: Thu., Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. | Fri., Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. | Sat., Feb 18 at 7:30 p.m. | Sun., Feb. 19 at 5 p.m. | Mon, Feb. 20 at 5:30 p.m. | Tue., Feb. 21 at 3:30 p.m. | Wed., Feb. 22 at 2:30 p.m. | Thu., Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. | TICKETS
The documentaries are a powerful lineup of films that dive fearlessly into some of the darkest aspects of the human existence, but there is still hope to be found. Extremis, produced by Netflix, is a fly-on-the-wall perspective of families dealing with loved ones staying alive through the help of breathing tubes and machines, including the heartbreaking decisions that need made and the doctors who help guide them. Its stark, sad and very well made, but it offers very little upward momentum and is quickly dismissable among its competition — most notably the three films focusing on refugees, two of which aim at Aleppo specifically.
The first of these three is 4.1 Miles, which follows the extraordinary boatmen dedicated to rescuing refugees from Turkey who are attempting to cross the titular distance into Greece. The film is like ice water thrown at you point blank, but it also suffers from very little thesis other than to force you to witness — which, of course, has its own value. Watani: My Homeland is the slowest of the five films, but perhaps one of the most important, as it brings to the foreground a family of six who live in Aleppo but flee to Germany as refugees after the father of the family is captured by ISIS and presumed dead.
Also in Aleppo is the story of everyday citizens who have taken up the duty of saving people, any person at all, who has been trapped under buildings and rubble as a result of the bombings. This film is The White Helmets, also produced by Netflix, and it is an absolute stunner. Emotional and heartening, you will fall in love with the honor and duty of these men who face absolute terror and tyranny with bravery and decency; a shoe-in for the gold.
But despite that sure-thing victory, it was the quiet soul of Joe’s Violin that spoke to me personally. A holocaust survivor donates the violin he’s had since the end of the war to an inner city child and the film follows them both until they finally meet. A deep, sweet reminder that the horrors of the world do not define us, and the beauty we hold on to, be it music, instrument or kindness, is what truly shapes us. The moment when these two finally meet is the most honest, and endearing moment of film in all of 2016. The first program (Joe’s Violin, Extremis and 4.1 Miles) runs 76 minutes and the second (Watani: My Homeland and The White Helmets) runs 85 minutes; the whole show is suitable for ages 16 and up.
Documentary Shorts run: Sat., Feb 18 at 4 p.m. | Sun., Feb. 19 at 1:45 p.m. | Wed., Feb. 22 at 8 p.m. | TICKETS
The short film has come a long way in recent years in terms of accessibility, credibility and artistry. Unconstrained from the grip of the mega studios, and untethered from the make-money-or-fail standards of the general film industry, short films offer a wide range of artistic styles, narratives and visions from mostly unknown filmmakers. I highly recommend this year’s slate of short films and promise a unique experience you won’t find at any other movie screen.
The programs run through Thursday, Feb. 23. Once you’ve seen them for yourself, you may also want to attend Film Scene’s annual Blue Carpet Bash. The event is co-hosted by The Englert and takes place at Film Scene this year, on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m., screening the Oscars ceremony with contests, beverages, photos and other appealing features. The $15 suggested donation includes unlimited popcorn.