Though many viewers will break for a snack when the shorts categories come up during the Oscar broadcast on Feb. 22, those films have some advantages over their feature-length cousins. As can be seen in the “Oscar Shorts” programs of live-action and animated nominees, short films cut through the blather: things like back story, exposition, character analysis, and belabored continuity. They let the viewer’s imagination fill the gaps
Take, for example, Israeli filmmakers Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis’s 39-minute live-action “Aya.” A young woman, Aya, waits at an airport, talking on the phone, unhappy. A limo driver has to move his car, and passes his client identification and greeting sign to another driver to hold for a moment. That driver must leave, and so he foists the sign onto Aya. Before she can think about it, the passenger arrives, and Aya decides to play the role handed to her. They drive to his hotel in Jerusalem, and as they exchange chitchat and she reveals her ruse, the facades break down. They become two lonely people in a car, the road seemingly limitless, eroticism, intimacy, and a new life within their grasp. Superbly acted and directed with nuance and subtlety, “Aya” would be my pick to win in this category.
Chinese filmmaker Hu Wei’s “Butter Lamp” also employs a simple, illuminating conceit to demonstrate the illusory permanence and tragic evanescence of human relationships. An extended Tibetan family poses for a portrait in Moscow’s Red Square. Except it’s not really Red Square; it’s a backdrop used by a young photographer who plies his trade in the remote frontier of China. The shutter clicks, the screen goes black, “another lot” arrives and poses before a different backdrop — an old Chinese scroll painting, a busy urban street. The photographer and his assistant are polite and efficient, but when one of the subjects asks them a favor, the illusion breaks down.
Also employing the premise of strangers and cultures colliding, Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger’s short drama “Parvaneh” shows what can happen when a young Afghan woman, a refugee in Switzerland desperate to send money back home, meets with indifference until a punk girl in Zurich offers to help — for a price. The Swiss girl drives a hard bargain, but the two learn they have a lot in common, starting with their oppression.
Brevity can work well for the classic twist ending, and sometimes not so well. The latter is the case in Irish director Michael Lennox’s “Boogaloo and Graham.” In 1978 Belfast, in the midst of The Troubles, two kids get a surprise treat from their father: two baby chicks. The boys give the birds the title names, and the four become inseparable, even bringing a smile to a British soldier. Mom, though, is not pleased when the birds grow big and messy, especially when she becomes pregnant, and it seems that only a miracle can save the beloved birds. Though the film is funny and heartwarming, Lennox overdoes the saccharine with a voice-over and a too cute denouement.
British director Mat Kirkby’s “The Phone Call” also starts strong and fizzles a bit with a soft ending. At the crisis clinic, Heather (Sally Hawkins) fields a call from Stanley (Jim Broadbent), a despondent widower who has taken a lot of pills. Like the characters in “Aya,” Heather and Stanley are forced by circumstances into a sudden and intense interaction. Hawkins and Broadbent are two of Britain’s greatest actors, but Kirkby lets them down in the end.
On the animation side, some of the best nominees (one of which, Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed’s “Feast,” was not available for preview) elicit the magic of a great children’s book brought to life. Torill Kove’s “Me and My Moulton,” like “Boogaloo and Graham,” recounts old childhood memories — in this case, growing up in 1960s Norway. A young girl and her two sisters endure the oddity of their Bohemian parents’ lifestyle, and both the precisely whimsical animation and the authentic voice-over narrative and dialogue evoke the golden memory with irresistible charm.
Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi create an animal fable that combines Beatrix Potter and Hayao Miyazaki in “The Dam Keeper,” and in it cute anthropomorphized critters learn about the importance of friendship and tolerance, and the darkness that lies just beyond the dam.
But even in animation there’s no escaping the darkness. Dutch directors Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, and Job Roggeveen’s “A Single Life” reduces a young woman’s life to the title tune on a 45 disk, demonstrating that not all songs can be replayed. And I’d give the prize to “The Bigger Picture,” Daisy Jacobs’s beautifully rendered, acerbically funny, and deeply moving portrait of bickering brothers and their elderly mother, if only for the line, “I thought of sex every moment of the day up to 40. Now all I think about is death.”
Watch the “Aya” trailer here:
OSCAR SHORTS: LIVE ACTION
Running time: 117 minutes
Unrated (serendipity, tragic irony, emotional anarchy)
At: Kendall Square (and Feb. 6 at Coolidge Corner)
OSCAR SHORTS: ANIMATED
Running time: 77 minutes
Unrated (animated adult and childish situations)
At: Kendall Square (and Feb. 6 at Coolidge Corner)Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.