Pick of the week: Is the golden age of short films upon us?

From three wrenching documentaries to a steampunk fantasy to Maggie Simpson, this year's Oscar shorts pack a punch

Topics: Movies, Our Picks, Our Picks: Movies, Documentaries, 2013 oscars, oscars 2013, Oscars, Academy Awards, Editor's Picks,

Pick of the week: Is the golden age of short films upon us?

We’re living in a golden age of short films – or at least we should be. Whatever device you’re using to read this article constitutes a node in the greatest distribution network for electronic media ever imagined or devised, one that theoretically reaches most people on the planet. As anybody who’s ever filled an idle minute with a YouTube video of someone else’s cat knows, a widely shared clip can pile up hundreds of thousands of views literally overnight. But unlimited access to an overwhelming torrent of unedited and unfiltered images is one thing, and careful, artful curation is quite another.

There’s a reason why short-film programs at film festivals are usually packed, and the annual showcase for Oscar-nominated shorts has become ever more popular, even in a world where all of us could spend our remaining lifetimes, several times over, watching allegedly entertaining Internet videos at no cost. (At no financial cost, that is; I do not speak of the cost to your soul or your sanity.) As unreliable as the Academy Awards may be at every possible level, it’s a relief to encounter the 2013 Oscar-nominated shorts and reflect that a group of people who know quite a bit about the art and craft of filmmaking has decided that these are good examples.

This marks the eighth straight year that the Oscar-nominated shorts – five nominees each in the live-action and documentary categories, plus a total of eight animated films, only five of them actual nominees — will get a theatrical run and then a home-video release, and the breadth and reach of the program has grown significantly. This year the films have been split into three separate programs for the first time (I think) and will screen in nearly every state in the Union (sorry, North Dakota!), four Canadian provinces and several European nations, before becoming available worldwide from iTunes and other on-demand providers during the week before Oscar night. What will you actually see, and what will these films tell you about the future of the medium? Hell, I don’t know – as with everything else about the Oscars, it’s best to take this material with a dose of salt. All three programs are worth seeing, but I recommend the documentaries first and foremost.



In recent years the Oscar-nominated animated films have tended ever more toward the whimsical, the lyrical and the nonverbal – not to mention toward extreme brevity. Only two of this year’s nominees break 10 minutes, although Minkyu Lee’s 16-minute “Adam and Dog,” a widescreen Creation fable made in old-fashioned cell animation, is so gorgeous you won’t want it to stop. None of this year’s animated films contain any noticeable dialogue, not even my other favorite, the five-minute “Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare,’” in which the youngest member of the Simpson clan is consigned to the brutal world of an Ayn Rand-inspired daycare. While I agree that it would be patently unfair to give an Oscar to what’s basically a TV skit, “The Longest Daycare” has all the unforced charm and heart that the visually impressive black-and-white Pixar short “Paperman” shoots for and doesn’t quite achieve.

At least the animated films, which also include the doleful stop-motion marriage farce “Head Over Heels” and the two-minute visual gag “Fresh Guacamole,” seem content to be what they are. What always makes the live-action Oscar-nominated shorts seem both frustrating and appealing is that they so obviously want to grow up and become features. There’s a rich tradition of experimental, non-narrative or simply non-mainstream short films that is almost never represented in this category, which has long been viewed as a training ground for Hollywood aspirants.

I’m not even sure I’m complaining about that, or claiming it’s a bad thing: Belgian filmmaker Tom van Avermaet’s steampunk-flavored 20-minute metaphysical fantasy, “Death of a Shadow,” is a wonderfully realized little comic-book fable, intact unto itself. But this tale of a dead World War I soldier compelled to spend the afterlife collecting the shadows of dying people with a spectral camera might be even better filled out to 90 satisfying minutes, and I’d love to see it. It’s somewhat more likely, sad to say, that van Avermaet will now get a job directing a horror remake, an “X-Men” sequel, or some other high-concept action flick with a declining Hollywood star.

This category also includes two memorable featurettes in a neorealist vein whose appeal lies in the fact that they were made at all, given their locations, casts and subject matter. Bryan Buckley’s “Asad” was shot using amateur actors drawn from the Somali refugee population of East Africa – since no foreigner in his right mind would try to make a film inside Somalia – while Sam French’s “Buzkashi Boys” was shot on the streets of Kabul by a creative team combining Western and Afghan filmmakers. (Buzkashi is that bizarre-to-outsiders Afghan version of polo, involving a bunch of guys on horseback and a goat carcass.) If the latter is a superior visual accomplishment, capturing the rhythms and images of daily life in the Afghan capital, its story about the doomed friendship between two boys from different backgrounds feels a bit mannered and manipulative. “Asad” is a slightly awkward tale about a boy who yearns to be a fisherman in a land of pirates and gangsters, but it gets us to an unexpected conclusion that packs a strange and potent wallop.

Every film in the documentary category pushes at the Academy’s prescribed 40-minute limit for shorts, which makes for a pretty long evening of viewing – not to mention a wrenching one. But all five are rewarding and downright terrific examples of the form, and at least three are among the most powerful documentaries you’re likely to see all year. (All, unsurprisingly, fall into the straightforward, issue-driven, vérité-style mode; there are no artful, puzzling docudrama hybrids to be seen here.) I think my favorite of these, or at least the one that left me blubbering most uncontrollably, was Cynthia Wade’s “Mondays at Racine,” which tells the stories of a circle of women who visit a Long Island beauty parlor that offers free treatments once a month to cancer patients. It’s a modestly scaled film with a modest suburban setting, about the ramifications of a disease that has touched most American families, but Wade’s blend of intimacy, hopefulness and profound tragedy ultimately makes it much, much bigger than that sounds.

The issue in Kief Davidson’s “Open Heart,” on the other hand, is almost too difficult to face. His film travels with a group of severely ill Rwandan children to an impressive new hospital in Sudan, run by an Italian relief organization, that is the only place in the entire continent of Africa that will do pediatric cardiac surgery for no cost. It’s a wrenching and shocking film that’s not for the weak of heart or stomach, even though the children Davidson follows all survive, at least for now. Most of us are aware of our world’s gross and glaring inequalities, at least on an intellectual level, but “Open Heart” forces us to confront that a level of medical care that would be virtually routine for you and me is all but unavailable to a person unlucky enough to be born in the poorer three-quarters of the human population.

In case those two movies don’t provide enough heavy lifting, there’s also Sari Gilman’s “Kings Point,” which begins as an offbeat expedition to an exotic land – in this case, a complex of modest Florida retirement condos where Gilman’s grandmother lived for many years — and ends with a ruthless and heartbreaking vision of human loneliness and despair that rivals anything found in Scandinavian cinema or German philosophy. I don’t honestly know whether to recommend “Kings Point,” in the normal sense, because its vision of American aging is far from uplifting. But I do know that it’s a profoundly brave and unsentimental work of exploration, one that assumes that old people have all the same desires, dreams and needs as younger ones. And I know that it should be seen by those who build retirement homes and those who live in them, and most of all by those who might wind up in them one day. Which adds up, if I’m not mistaken, to pretty much everybody.

The Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2013 open this week in major cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, with wider national release to follow. All three programs of short films will be available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers, beginning Feb. 19.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>