Giving out Academy Awards to the best short films has always felt like presenting National Book Awards to booklets. Yeah, it's an outstanding achievement, but the honor seems disproportionate to the effort. Besides, the short film has become a modern rarity almost everywhere except as a prelude to Pixar features.
That said, there's some enjoyable and impressive work in mini-movies this year. The Oscar prizes go to three categories: best animated short, live action, and documentary. Compilations for two of the divisions were screened for critics, and I mostly liked them. Even if you find some of the nominees so-so, just wait a few minutes and another one will be along.
The animated nominees, running a trim 83 minutes, include the only short with any popular recognition in the United States. If you saw Pixar's "Cars 3," you probably also saw its dialogue-free cartoon curtain-raiser, "Lou." In photorealistic style, it's a morality tale about JJ, a primary school playground bully. A pile of missing knickknacks in the outdoor Lost and Found box unite, transforming into a close cousin of the Muppets' Oscar the Grouch that only JJ notices. He begins to see the favorite toys the other kids used to have, appreciate how special they made them feel and become more sympathetic.
Much deeper is "Dear Basketball," a sort of autobiographical love letter to the sport written and narrated by Kobe Bryant. Drawn like graceful sketches in pencil and paper, it's elegant work, sliding seamlessly from when Bryant was a 6-year-old through his adulthood, nicely scored by John Williams. They shot, they scored.
It's impossible to say much about "Negative Space" without getting into spoiler territory, but it has a poignant message about fathers, sons and how much it can mean to pack a suitcase to leave home. Its attempt to emulate the effect of sketchy hand-drawn animation undercuts the emotional goal.
"Garden Party" is an eerie animal tale. It introduces us alongside toads and frogs, and through points of view similar to theirs, to a deserted villa where, well, something has been feeding. It establishes a creepy Gothic vibe like Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" and includes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it glimpse of a very familiar face in the owner's portrait.
The most ambitious of the lot is the half-hour "Revolting Rhymes." Adapted from Roald Dahl's pessimistic poetry collection, it mixes together Snow White, Red Riding Hood, big bad wolves, edible grandmas, Cinderella, beanstalk-climbing Jack and vulnerable pigs into a naughty, unsanitized twist on classic children's tales. The point is to reveal hidden depths to the stories and characters that everyone is already familiar with, and in a Tim Burton sort of way, it's successful.
There's a similarly wide-ranging selection in this year's live action short film nominees, which run 97 minutes.
"The Eleven O'Clock" features Damon Herriman and screenwriter Josh Lawson as men who meet in a psychiatrist's office and argue over which of them is the therapist and which is the patient. Awash in verbal swordplay and mounting lunacy, it's a flawless portrait of today's alternate facts and paranoid uncertainties.
The German-Kenyan coproduction "Watu Wote: All of Us," is, like several other nominees, based on a true story. Adelyne Wairimu plays a Christian African whose tragedies have hardened her antagonism toward Muslims. While she's taking a cross-Kenya bus journey among many Muslim passengers, the bus is attacked by Al-Shabab terrorists. The story reaches an unexpected climax and a touching coda.
A crucial moment of American civil rights history in 1955 is the basis for "My Nephew Emmett." L.B. Williams has the central role as a Mississippi sharecropper whose house is entered by armed white men intent to be judge, jury and executioner of his nephew for an alleged act of disrespect. The little home becomes a pressure cooker of claustrophobia and anxiety.
Reality is also at the root of "DeKalb Elementary," which tensely dramatizes a 2013 Atlanta grade school invasion by a mentally ill gunman. He was talked down from harming anyone by the school receptionist, impressively played by Tarra Riggs. Much of the dialogue is transcribed from the emergency call she made to the police dispatcher as she coolly, calmly explained the situation to both sides.
"The Silent Child" does a slow burn about the life of a bright deaf child. Written by star Rachel Shenton, it makes heartbreaking points without ever sentimentalizing. A mentor and sign language teacher, she makes a quick connection with the withdrawn girl (played to perfection by Maisie Sly). But she struggles to mesh with the girl's hearing mother, who doesn't accept the advice to treat her awakening daughter as "normal ... just deaf."
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