Review: 2017 Live Action Shorts Oscar Nominees

By : February 13, 2017

I have no interest in the Oscars or similar marketing entertainment, and I would be hopeless at predicting winners, but I enjoyed these five films this weekend at Los Angeles’s Nuart Theater.

 
Timestamp

The nominee that makes the most effective, engaging and original use of the tools of cinema is Timestamp, from Spain, directed by Juanjo Gimenez Pena. Timestamp’s simple story is told almost entirely with interesting visuals, making it more akin to a graphic novel than to a short story. Much of the film is the action recorded by closed circuit security cameras, a mediation that enriches this effect.

The film shows the developing relationship of two security guards in a bleak parking garage. We know nothing about the two people except what we see, and who cares — we do not need to know anything else to be quite captivated. Has dance ever been more naturally central to a feature film? Has a parking garage ever been a more telling context for dance?

Ennemis Intérieurs

Ennemis Intérieurs from France probably has the best screenwriting and the most timely-yet-universal theme, but is the least interesting film qua film. Structurally it is a simple and classic stage play (two antagonistic characters at a table), slightly opened up for filming.

A long-time resident of France who had been born in Algeria wearily and incautiously applies in middle age for French citizenship, and what starts as a seemingly routine set of questions (Can you name two French rivers?) becomes an interrogation.

The questioning becomes increasingly tense, but not because of any suspense about the outcome. There is no doubt about who will win a French interrogation room verbal encounter between a Muslim and a suspicious state security officer.

The tension builds as we watch each tightening of the trap, as the experienced interrogator leads the applicant to a coerced collaboration against other Muslims who might be terrorists, but who also might be a book group whose book happens to be the Quoran, and whose meetings are mostly social.

Ennemis Intérieurs, directed by Selim Azzazi, does not indicate whether the civilian is a potential terrorist or just another alienated and abused Algeria-born Muslim in France. The film’s audience is certainly led to sympathize with the civilian, and with the neighbors whose names he betrays to the French authorities.

The quietly relentless interrogator might seem less biased and more justified in his suspicions to those viewers who are aware of the grim history of the French and Algerians, and aware of the specifics of Algerian enclaves and terrorism facing France today. But the man being interrogated, his mood cycling among despair, anger, and resignation, seems to be collateral damage in other people’s wars.

Sing

This gentle, child-centered Hungarian film (directed by Kristof Deak) starts off like an afternoon special about the new girl in school, and ends up being a gentle rebuke to authoritarianism and unethical competitiveness — or, if you are Ayn Rand or Martin Shkreli, I suppose, the film depicts communitarian anarchy aimed at destroying a meritocracy and sabotaging a successful, ethics-be-damned competitiveness, all accomplished by peer-group conformity.

“If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying,” the music teacher might say, as some sports commentators like to say. Sing is a heart-warming film, especially if you like your films’ school children to be adorable, precocious and brave, quietly rebelling to preserve rather than to challenge traditional values. Their subversion of the music teacher is

Silent Nights

Denmark’s Silent Nights (directed by Aske Berg) is a melodrama or tragedy, depending on your mood, centering on the involvement of a good hearted Danish immigrant shelter volunteer and a desperate economic refugee from Ghana. Urgently needing to send money home to his family, particularly an ailing child, Kwame steals and lies, and who among us would not.

Inger, the volunteer, soon secretly pregnant by Kwame, discovers his other family and tosses him out. She understandably allows her personal sense of betrayal to override her understanding of why desperate people violate social codes.

Only when she realizes that he might actually have loved her, not just have exploited her, is she able to regain her role as selfless carer — giving him the money needed to return to his family, without mentioning to him the child he will be leaving behind.

Individuals’ stories certainly do humanize vast tragedies, like the suffering of contemporary refugees, whether from poverty (as in this film) or war and oppression. Silent Nights does encourage its audience to sympathize with economic immigrants — well, maybe not the young Arab thugs who beat Kwame — although the film’s ending suggests that the best place for a poor Ghanaian is in Ghana.

That implication seems unlikely to be what the writer and director intended, given the film’s sympathetic portrayal of Kwame and its rejection of violent nationalism and racism. But nowhere in the film is there any suggestion that Denmark is capable of accepting refugees. Denmark can’t, or won’t, even bring all of them inside during winter.

La Femme et le TGV

La Femme et le TGV, a Swiss film directed by Timo von Gunten, tells a charming — perhaps too charming — story about an old lady who lives just to wave a Swiss flag every morning at a passing train, and about the merry mixup that ensues when the train’s engineer sends her a note.

Aging actors rightly complain about how few interesting roles are available, and I am about to complain that too many of those roles are about daft old people. Elise is daft, but charmingly so. What appears to Elise first as a horrible tragedy (the engineer being transferred) becomes the occasion for one of those big life lessons which she helpfully explains to us.

Visually La Femme et le TGV is pleasing, bright and airy, at times a bit cartoonish (especially when showing her strange home hard against the rails). But pleasing.

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