I have a piece up at Hammer to Nail on the 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. Those 5 films set the bar very high, and were I part of the Academy, I would have hard time determining the winner. Unfortunately, the other two categories of short films – animated and live-action – are not nearly as consistently strong. Here are my thoughts, in order by my preference, on the live-action category, which is, as a collection, slightly better than the animated films:
Everything Will Be Okay (“Alles Wird Gut”) (Patrick Vollrath, 30min.)
Wow! I’m not even sure if I like this taut German film, but it is a tour-de-force family drama with such strong performances by the two main actors that I almost don’t care. This is the story of Michael (Simon Schwarz, terrific), a divorced father who, when we first meet him, is pacing nervously outside the house of his ex-wife. We soon discover that today is his visitation day, and it is clear from the lack of words exchanged between the former spouses that the separation was not amicable. But joy of joys, he gets to see Lea (Julia Pointner, born in 2005 and utterly amazing), his young daughter, and as they drive away, we think we’re watching one kind of film, only to then discover that, no, this is something much more brutal. For Michael has plans, which we suspect early on without fully knowing for certain, and then watch in horror as he puts those plans into action. Don’t worry, he is a loving father, but a father with a desperate idea of how to keep Lea all to himself. Beautifully executed, with a sustained tense atmosphere throughout, Everything Will Be Okay is the clear standout, for me, among these five short films.
Stutterer (Benjamin Cleary, 12min.)
Next up, we have the British Stutterer, which feels very slight compared to Everything Will Be Okay, but is exquisitely shot and edited, with a fine central performance. Greenwood (Matthew Needham, very strong) is a man with a serious stuttering problem who is about to face a major crisis when Ellie, the woman with whom he has been communicating online for 6 months, announces (via text) that she is coming to London. To be honest, it strains credulity that someone would be this ashamed of such a disability in 2015, but perhaps the truth is more complicated. Which it is. We keep hoping that Greenwood will overcome his shyness and agree to a meeting, and if we don’t quite believe in that reticence, at 12 minutes the film does not overstay its welcome. It’s funny and sweet, and devoid of false sentimentality. Kudos to that.
Day One (Henry Hughes, 25min.)
Here’s another brutal movie. It has excellent intentions, but somehow ends up feeling more manipulative than genuine. Feda (a superlative Layla Alizada) is a divorced young Afghan woman on the first day of her new job as an interpreter for the United States military. Game, but totally unprepared for the realities of war, she heads off into the mountains with her assigned unit. Right away, things go very wrong, and she must test her mettle in a crucible of blood and terror. The film is based on director Henry Hughes’ actual experiences in combat, and I admire his resolve not to shrink from the unpleasant details of battle. Still, the situation, as it plays out here, has an element of transparent calculation – of continual raising of the stakes – that ultimately detracts from the sincerity of the narrative. See it for Alizada, but expect to be (a little) disappointed. I look forward to Hughes’ sophomore effort, however.
Shok (Jamie Donoughue, 21min.)
Shok offers another take on the horrors of war, this time in Kosovo in the late 1990s. Two Albanian boys, best friends, find themselves caught in the middle of the crisis, as Serbian militias begin a process of ethnic cleansing. The ups and downs of the boys’ relationship – one wants to deal with the Serbs, while the other hates them – are set against the increasingly violent actions of the occupying troops. It’s a nice technique that disarms us by hiding the director’s true intentions, not revealed until the end, but the film is hampered by the less-than-stellar performances of all involved. It feels as if everyone could have used an additional take (or two) to remove the last vestige of artifice from their on-screen behavior. As it is, what could have been truly moving ends up being, instead, a blueprint for a better movie, to be directed and acted by others.
Ave Maria (Basil Khalil, 15min.)
The only outright comedy of the lot (albeit a bitter one), Ave Maria is set in the present-day West Bank of Israel, where a dysfunctional family, on their way home from a far-flung Jewish settlement, crashes their car into the side of a Palestinian convent (run by the “Sisters of Mercy”). More specifically, they smash up a statue of the Virgin Mary, beheading her, leading to the two best gags in the film, one visual, the other spoken: when we first see the statue, the severed head lies on the ground, oil from the car seeping from behind, like blood; when the youngest nun runs inside to explain the noise to her fellow sisters, she screams, “Jews have violated the Virgin Mary.” Ha ha! Positioned as one of those stories of culture clashes where all must learn to get along, the film is marred by uneven performances and clumsy pacing. Most of the jokes – as well as the entire situation – feel forced, and the Jewish family is so caricatured that it’s hard not to read some not-so-latent anti-Semitism into their portrayal, acknowledged or not (the director is, himself, Palestinian). Leaving that aside, in terms of purely cinematic concerns, this is the most amateurish movie among the nominees.