All the best movies elicit our emotions — Roger Ebert famously called these movies “empathy machines” — but there is a fine line between an emotion earned and an emotion provoked. Movies that hopscotch across this line are what many dub “Oscar-bait” and the 2019 nominees are no exception, particularly in the short film categories: animation, documentary and live action.
Take the five up for Best Animated Short Film: Animal Behavior, Bao, Late Afternoon, One Small Step and Weekends. Four marinate in melancholy — the one that doesn’t is also the lone dud — specifically about the loss of time between parent and child. The best of the bunch, Bao, is Pixar’s offering and very quickly, and playfully, establishes the pain a mother feels when their child grows up and heads off into the world.
The reverse happens in Late Afternoon, an Irish short full of wispy lines illustrating the threads of memory the main character, an aging mother, desperately holds on to as they fray before her very eyes while trying to recall the daughter standing before her.
Both shorts play the audience like a piano, but they work because they elicit heartfelt emotions. The five nominated for Best Documentary — Black Sheep, End Game, Lifeboat, A Night at the Garden and PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE — aim for the same but don’t always get there.
Of the five, Night at the Garden bubbles up feelings of appall and fury with footage from Feb. 20, 1939, the night the German American Bund (German Americans promoting the rise of the Nazi Party) held a rally of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden. Director Marshall Curry allows the footage to speak for itself rather than provide commentary — an effective trick because it reminds us that this country has more than flirted with anti-Semitism. But it’s also a dirty trick because Curry provides so little context that there is nothing to complicate our emotions.
Then there are the Best Live Action nominees — Detainment, Fauve, Marguerite, Madre and Skin — a group of films so bleak they ought to come with a Surgeon General warning.
The standout here is Detainment, which also happens to be the darkest of the lot, partly because it is based on a true event — the abduction and murder of a 2-year-old by two 10-year-olds — and partly because of what the short withholds.
Working from a script based on the actual audio recordings from the 1993 police interrogations, Detained wrenches the truth out of the gnarled fingers of abject evil. Thankfully, director Vincent Lambe spares the audience from visually reconstructing the sordid details of the crime, but the mind reels without them. Lambe’s goal seems to want to focus the audience’s attention less on the act, and more on the young boys who perpetrated it (and the parents who sit dumbfounded beside them) and wonder what could have ever led them to this moment.
If there is an answer, it is not an easy one. That makes the truth of it all the more devastating.
ON THE BILL: 2019 Oscar-Nominated Short Films. International Film Series, Muenzinger Auditorium, 1905 Colorado Ave., Boulder, University of Colorado Boulder, internationalfilmseries.com. Dairy Arts Center, Boedecker Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, thedairy.org. Landmark Mayan, 110 Broadway, Denver, landmarktheatres.com/denver.