2019 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts
It’s Oscar season once again, and if you’re like me, you’re in a mad rush to catch as many of the nominated films as possible before the big day. A great way to knock a large number of films off of your “to see” list in one fell swoop is to check out the shorts programs. Every year, the Academy nominates a handful of short films from around the world, both live-action and animated, to compete for Oscar gold. This year’s live-action selection is similar to previous years in that it’s a mixed bag quality-wise. However, the subject matter isn’t as spread out as usual. There are a LOT of kids in peril this time around, and to watch the entire block in one sitting is to set yourself up for a seriously depressing night at the movies. That said, short of one film, they’re all worth checking out, and one in particular is absolutely unmissable.
Detainment (dir. Vincent Lambe)
In 1993, two young boys abducted and murdered a toddler, seemingly just for the fun of it. The details of the crime are grisly to say the least, and as such, the tale has become fodder for true crime aficionados ever since. Vincent Lambe’s drama draws from the audio of the boys’ interrogations and subsequent confessions to deliver a harrowing, heartbreaking drama. The performances from the two young actors (Eli Solan & Leon Hughes) are stunning and realistic, which is amazing given their age, but the film fails to make a case for its own existence. It’s a difficult watch, which I guess could be defended under “showing another angle of the story.” Sure, that’s fine, but when your dialogue is lifted directly from publicly accessible materials, one wonders why this wasn’t a documentary. Just what is this other angle? I’m all for the humanization of even the worst criminals, but this is merely a recreation, not an exploration. Add to that the fact that the filmmakers didn’t seek the approval of the victim’s family (which wasn’t legally required, but would’ve been nice — although not asking is a great way of avoiding a refusal) and it makes the whole thing feel even murkier; even more exploitative. It is worth noting that Lambe has contacted the victim’s mother and made an offer for an in person apology, but I could not find any further details regarding if and when such apology occurred.
Fauve (dir. Jérémy Comte)John Mulaney has a great joke about how, when he was a kid, he assumed that quicksand would feature much more prominently in his adult life. He’s right. As a child, quicksand was considered by many of us, myself included, to be a very real, very scary threat. One wrong step in the wrong direction and within seconds anyone could be engulfed by nature’s cruel indifference. I thought I had outgrown these fears, but alas, Fauve has all but renewed them. What begins as a silly “make me laugh” game between two young boys innocently escalates into a scene of pure terror. Gah, I’m getting freaked out just thinking about it. If any film in this block could be categorized as horror, this is it.
Maguerite (dir. Marianne Farley)
Breaking up the children in peril narrative comes Marguerite, a tender, quiet film about the bonds between an elderly patient and her younger caretaker. What starts as a polite, yet businesslike relationship becomes much more when Marguerite discovers that her nurse is in a romantic partnership with another woman. Having come from a different time, Marguerite is forced to acknowledge her own history, her own desires, all with the realization that she’s in the twilight years of her life. The bond that grows between the two women is beautifully performed by the actresses (Béatrice Picard & Sandrine Bisson), who each bring a solemn humanity to what, without the revelation that spawns between them, could have remained purely utilitarian. Marguerite is a warm cup of tea for the soul amidst a shorts program replete with suffering and trauma.
Madre (dir. Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Perhaps the most cinematically interesting piece of the bunch comes in the form of a single-take drama/thriller in which a mother receives a troubling phone call from her very young son. While touching base at her home before what is planned to be a night on the town, Marta bickers with her mother over the inanities of their lives. But when Marta’s 6 year old boy, who is supposed to be on vacation with his father, calls to report that he’s been abandoned on an empty unrecognizable beach, it becomes a race against the clock for Marta to simultaneously comfort, locate, and protect her child from the litany of invisible-yet-tangible threats that any parent worth a damn drives themselves insane cataloguing. Much like a beloved full-length film from last year called The Guilty, this film takes place in a single location and consists of nothing more than a very intense phone call. Keep an eye on the sly direction as well. Specific conversation beats are timed to coordinate with with the camera’s eye, integrating deceptively intimate details of Marta’s home decor with the rapidly unfolding plot. A fantastic film.
Skin (dir. Guy Nattiv)
Saving the best of the bunch for last. Where Skin begins, one would assume that it’s easy to predict where it’s going to end. I assure you that you cannot. One could be forgiven for assuming that the film would take your typical race narrative (white supremacists attack an innocent black man, Oscars ensue), but fortunately, this is no Crash. When an playful exchange between a black man and the son of a white supremacist results in some stark, deeply upsetting violence, it sets off a covert war between two factions, the results of which challenge the notion of skin color-based judgments. One part treatise on the dangers of viewing the world in black and white, and one part depiction of what, had it been a true story, would’ve made for a legendary “how is this not The Onion?” headline, Skin shocks and delights in equal measure. This film alone is worth the price of your ticket.