It’s Oscar season at the movies and that means celebrating the cinematic high-water marks that 2016 brought. And with 62 nominated films to choose from, there is ample opportunity to discover something new for everyone.
More often than not, the movies that get nominated in the top five categories — picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay — are the movies that garnered festival buzz, positive critical reception and a healthy box office throughout the year. Add to that the slew of award shows that occur between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, all of which feature the same familiar titles, and the possibility of prestige fatigue can bog even the hardiest of moviegoers down. That’s where the shorts come in. Here are 15 examples of experimentation, personality and energy that few have had a chance to see. And thankfully, all are coming to a theater near you.
Blind Vaysha (d. Theodore Ushev, Canada, 8 minutes)
Borrowed Time (d. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, U.S.A., 7 minutes)
Pear Cider and Cigarettes (d. Robert Valley, Canada and U.K., 35 minutes)
Pearl (d. Patrick Osborne, U.S.A., 6 minutes)
Piper (d. Alan Barillo, U.S.A., 6 minutes)
Of the five nominations, the most impressive is also the one most familiar to audiences: Piper, the Pixar short that played in front of Finding Dory this past summer. While the story is pleasing — a baby sandpiper discovers a new way to hunt for clams — it’s the photorealistic animation of the sand, surf and sky that make this short of particular note. Ever since the days of Walt Disney, animation has been trying to create the illusion of reality and with the recent developments Pixar has made, that dream is quickly becoming reality.
But animation needn’t simply be the recreation of reality; it can also capture the viscerality of an experience. That can be found in both Blind Vaysha, an impressionistic hand-drawn animation about a girl who has one eye that sees the past and the other eye that sees the future, and Pear Cider and Cigarettes, a blocky and stylish Raymond Chandler-esque story about how far a friend will go for another. Both of these shorts tell their tales remarkably well. Considering how widely disparate the stories and the styles are, this group of animation nominations shows just how versatile the medium can be.
Ennemis Intérieurs (d. Sélim Aazzazi, France, 28 minutes)
La Femme et le TGV (d. Timo von Gunten, Switzerland, 30 minutes)
Silent Nights (d. Aske Bang, Denmark, 30 minutes)
Sing (d. Kristof Deák, Hungary, 25 minutes)
Timecode (d. Juanjo Giménez Peña, Spain, 15 minutes)
Sometimes, shorts become features. Damien Chazelle’s 2013 short, Whiplash, became the 2014 feature that garnering six Oscar nominations that year. The same might happen to one of these lucky five, but the beauty of at least three of them is that they are no longer or shorter than they need to be to tell their tale.
The two best are Silent Nights and Timecode. The latter is a fun and silly story about two security guards courting each other through dance moves and an elaborate security camera system. Timecode is mostly silent but ends on a particularly good one-liner. There aren’t many laughs in Silent Nights, but the story of a Danish Red Cross worker falling in love with a Ghanaian refugee is compact, complete and heartfelt.
Extremis (d. Dan Krauss, U.S.A., 24 minutes)
4.1 Miles (d. Daphne Matziaraki, U.S.A. & Greece, 26 minutes)
Joe’s Violin (d. Kahane Cooperman, U.S.A., 24 minutes)
Watani: My Homeland (d. Marcel Mettelsiefen, U.K., 39 minutes)
The White Helmets (d. Orando von Einsiedel, U.S.A., 41 minutes)
Watching documentaries can often be a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes the filmmakers hold their audience at arm’s length, asking for their patience while they finish their story. Far too often, these docs offer little hope or resolution and make us wonder if there is anything to be done about such a problem. Other times, the documentary comes off as pure propaganda, designed to whip the audience into a frenzy and send them back into the world with a newly found cause and a website to visit. While the latter isn’t on overt display in these five, the former certainly is.
This is particularly true in the two docs that take place in Aleppo, Syria: The White Helmets and Watani: My Homeland. While The White Helmets follow those who work to rescue survivors in Aleppo — “It’s better to save a life than take one,” one of the White Helmets tells the camera — Watani follows a family over the course of three years and watches as the Syrian Civil War transforms their lives. In one chilling scene, a young girl play-acts as an ISIS recruit — not because she has been radicalized, but because children mimic what they see. Much like an American child watching Western movies and playing cowboys and Indians, this girl directs her sisters in make-believe as her mother watches with detached resignation. This is their life after all, but as the doc shows, leaving this life isn’t exactly peaches and cream either.
Both Watani and 4.1 Miles deal directly with the refugee crisis, neither with a heartwarming conclusion. Joe’s Violin is also about the story of a refugee but from a more welcoming time. Joe Feingold is a Polish Holocaust survivor who spent six years in a Siberian labor camp before his release. His father and one of his brothers survived, but another brother and his mother did not. Joe, a violinist, now lives in New York City. When he hears a donations call for unused instruments for grade schools, he parts with the violin he obtained in 1947 by trading cigarettes. The violin ends up in an all-girls school in the Bronx where the star pupil, Brianna Perez, is given the privilege of playing Joe’s violin until she graduates.
Joe’s Violin focuses on the instrument that bridges Joe and Brianna. A little of their background is given, but not much. What matters here is their passion for music and how that passion can be passed on. It plucks the heartstrings as Brianna wants to become a music teacher when she grows up. It’s schmaltzy but considering the other offerings in the series, a little schmaltz is necessary.
On the Bill: 2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films
The Boedecker Theater. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7825, thedairy.org.
International Film Series. Muenzinger Auditorium, 1905 Colorado Ave., Boulder, 303-492-8662, internationalfilmseries.com.
Sie Film Center. 2510 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, 720-381-0813, denverfilm.org.
Landmark Mayan. 110 Broadway, Denver, 303-744-6799, landmarktheatres.com/denver.