Instead of using that tired old cliché, “Big things come in small packages,” let’s rely on another one; one a little more apropos to this year’s Academy Awards: Little things often lead to bigger things.
Case in point: Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh. At the 2005 Oscars, McDonagh’s film, Six Shooter, took home the statue for Best Live Action Short. This year, he returns with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with two nominations: one for Best Original Screenplay, the other for Best Picture. Not a bad go at things.
Only time will tell which of this year’s nominees will grace the ceremony in the future, but with all 15 nominees for animation, live action and documentary screening in special programs around town, at least you won’t have to miss this year’s winner. You might even pick up a few names to keep tabs on.
This is particularly true in the live action category, which features a diverse range of narratives from Australia to Africa, 1955 to 2017. The best of the bunch is Dekalb Elementary from writer/director Reed Van Dyke. Based on a 911 call placed during a school shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, the short confines itself to one location and essentially two characters — an incredibly calm and collected school receptionist, and a mentally unstable gunman.
Van Dyke expertly uses this confined location to provide tension while letting his actors control the ebbs and flows of emotion. Even more significantly, Dekalb Elementary utilizes the short form perfectly, running only 20 minutes long and telling a complete story without feeling indulgent or reductive.
That lack of indulgence or reduction also works to great effect in the animation category, notably in Negative Space. Directed by Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, it’s a stop-motion reflection of a son whose only connection to his absent father is through a meticulous suitcase-packing strategy the father passed down. From folding pants to the placement of cotton shirts in a suitcase, our unnamed narrator recounts a special, yet strained, relationship with his father while demonstrating his superior packing technique. Porter and Kuwahata take this visual metaphor one step further; literally unpacking the narrator’s memories with the same handmade care the son reserves for his father’s clothes. The result is a visual nesting doll, one revealing the inner cause of outer effects.
And trying to decipher inner causes of outer effects is precisely what the documentary category tries to get at, none better than Heroin(e).
Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon takes her camera to the streets of Huntington, West Virginia — a town where the opiate crisis holds its residents in an icy grip — and follows three women: a fire chief reviving users from overdoses, a judge presiding over drug court and a woman of the faith rescuing prostitutes from the street.
Heroin(e) is not an easy watch — the documentary shorts never are — but Sheldon’s spare and direct style strips the doc of any needless propaganda and commentary. Seeing is enough. Let’s hope we see more from Sheldon in Oscars to come.
On the Bill: 2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films.
International Film Series
Muenzinger Auditorium, 1905 Colorado Ave.,
Sie Film Center
2510 E. Colfax Ave, Denver. denverfilm.org
110 Broadway, Denver.