2019 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

Well, I must say…the nominating committees for much of this year’s categories sure have a penchant for the bleak, especially when it comes to kids. Between “Roma” (Foreign Film), “Of Fathers and Sons” (Doc), “Minding the Gap” (Doc), “Black Sheep” (Doc Short), “Lifeboat” (Doc Short), “Period. End of Sentence” (Doc Short), and, especially, “Capernaum” (Foreign Film), you’d be hard pressed to think any children in the world have even a moment to giggle.

But even by those standards, the nominated Live Action Short films are an overwhelmingly depressing bunch. Four out of five directly revolve around children and the horrors they either perpetrate or suffer. It’s a bit much. Yet buried within the program is a lovely, lovely film that, in my screening, anyway, had everyone sobbing silently for all the right reasons. And, most importantly, there was no zany, sickly sweet, cutesy comedy from a USC grad student. These films were all about something…even when deep in a bottomless morass or with not much to redeem their existence.

<sigh> Here goes…

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“Detainment” (Ireland)
Directed by Vincent Lambe

detainment posterI honestly don’t know what to say about this film. Based on the actual recordings of  original police interviews, the film endeavors to re-enact one of the most heinous crimes ever perpetrated by anyone under the age of fifteen. I’m not sure why Vincent Lambe thought that would make for a good cinematic exercise, especially when deciding realizm was the way to go with the film’s style.

To accomplish a re-enactment such as this, one must use child actors to play the boys in the interviews. And they are incredible, especially Ely Solan. But without a bigger purpose other than to show us the evil horror even children can do, it all felt terribly gratuitous. And I felt so deeply for those young actors and all the screaming, crying, denying, talking they had to do. Adult actors are able to separate their character’s actions from their own. But very young children must actually feel those emotions to effectively convey them, which means the director had to GET THEM THERE. I don’t know how easily they’ll shake that off, or how easily I’ll shake off watching them. The result is I felt a well of sympathy for the actors, when I think I was supposed to feel disgust, shock and disbelief for the actual historical figures and what had happened to their childhoods. Which leads me to my original thought…what was the point? I only know I wanted to take a shower at the film’s conclusion

As a film (dare I bother), it’s extremely well executed. Maybe more so than any of the other four nominees. The story line is tight, the editing effective, and the adult actors are convincing.

But, really. A documentary would’ve made more sense. Just eww.

Trailer here

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“Fauve” (Canada)
Directed by Jeremy Comte

fauveposterThis lovely buddy-buddy film tells a very different tale of two boys experiencing the horror of mortality. They are innocents in a dangerous world, not evil. They run around, using the decaying surroundings they live in as their playground. Adventures occur via imagination, innocent conflict, and that youthful feeling of indestructibility – leading to an incident that throws all of that out the window in a matter of moments.

Jerry Comte has created a beautiful narrative, with a perfectly defined beginning, middle and end (and a gorgeous bookend – although perhaps a bit heavy-handed – we get it). And the performance of the boys (Felix Grenier and Alexandre Perrault), while nowhere near having to attain the level of intensity found in “Detainment” (thank god), are utterly believable from the first frame to the last. Grenier, especially, masters perplexity, shame and terror without a bit of the pushing that usually plagues child actors in such situations. And the interspersing of close up and long, long vistas heightens the sense of solitude felt by the characters. That an industrial wasteland should appear so beautiful recalls “The Qatsi Trilogy” or last year’s beautiful “A Moon Of Nickel and Ice” (reviewed by me here and available on Prime Video).

I was quite fond of this film and had I a vote, it would come in a very close second.

Trailer here

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“Madre” (Spain)
Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen

madreposterTold in a single scene, this horrifying mother’s nightmare is quite effective. Thanks to a perfectly simmering performance from Marta Nieto (and two terrific voice performances), our Pavlovian response to her experience is harrowing. And director Sorogoyen, in the film’s 19 minutes, sets us up beautifully for what we think will be a very different kind of movie. And ends the film in perfect fashion. It’s like being in a car, on your way to a vacation with your closest friends, and then you realize the brakes have been cut and there is no way to take that brick off the gas pedal.

So why won’t it win? Well, compared to the other five, it’s just not substantial enough a film. Strictly in scope, it comes across as a film school exercise. “Write an entire film that takes place within one scene”, kinda thing. Doesn’t mean it’s not great…it is. In fact, I would place it as the third best film of the bunch.

Trailer here

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“Marguerite” (Canada)
Directed by Marianne Farley

marguertieTo me, “Marguerite” is the clear winner, if for no other reason that no pre-adolescent characters were harmed in the making of it. But there are other reasons. Many. The story is a beautiful elegy to a time past, and a present too good to be believed by those of that earlier time. It is a film about trust, love, empathy and what it means to be happy as a human…both in the abstract and the very present. In short, it is a simple tale well told and extremely moving. Every single person in the theater was sniffling before it ended…for all the right reasons. I don’t think any of the other four brought out anything but gasps and incredulity.

To achieve this, Marianne Farley has told a woman’s tale with just the right amount of heart and not a trace of schmaltz. Her sets, camera passages, and characters don’t ask too much of us, so we can focus on the relationship, and its shifts and growth. Toward that end she has cast a brilliant actress, Beatrice Picard, whose facial lines and stern features perfectly belie the warmth and love underneath the hardened crust she has had to put in place. Sandrine Besson, as her caretaker, is also quite good, but so much less is asked of her other than to just be present and open. I know, I know…”just be present and open” is not at all easy. But she sure makes it seem so.

“Marguerite” is a terrific addition to the canon of exceptional shorts that come out of this process. It’s not perfect. But so few are. It is engaging, lovingly executed and well worth the statuette.

Alas, I think it will come in second to…

Trailer here

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“Skin” (USA)
Directed by Guy Nattiv

skinposterThis bit of ultra violent revenge porn is being hailed as the obvious winner. Perhaps it’s because the revenge involved is so well earned…and the lessons of the film are BASHED over your head at the film’s conclusion. But if I’m being honest, I found it to be obvious…yet somehow convoluted in its message? Is it about how this all affects the kids? Is it about comeuppance? Is it about our current society? And if it is about all of this, then director Guy Nattiv clearly missed a step or two along the way…most probably removing a bit here or there in the editing room that would have made us connect more, instead of being simply reviled throughout. He basically forgot to add at least one or two shades of grey…which would have made for a much better film.

That’s not to say it isn’t well made. It’s one of the best made films of the bunch. It moves fast thanks to some terrific scene editing. The dialogue is actually quite believable. The environments and settings seem, again, a little obvious, but never get in the way. And while the characters are utterly over-the-top, the acting never is. They all seem very grounded in their sense of reality..which is a testament to the director. At the very least he made them believe this was a real world.

If only he had done us the same favor.

Regardless, I predict it will walk away with the prize due to the gratification of the revenge, the “twist” at the end, and its connection with American race relations. Gonna be hard to pass up for the Academy rank and file methinks.

Trailer here

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Written on 2/13/2019

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